Book 3 of the Six Books of Magic
By Jolie Jaquinta
Published by Jolie Jaquinta at Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Jolie Jaquinta
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The sea-god Atlantica lowered his pearl studded crown onto the head of Winter and proclaimed “With this I crown you Surge of the Northern Seas”. Winter stood as tall as his young frame would allow, but even so he only came up to the broad chest of Atlantica. His black hair floated in a nimbus around his head, swaying with the motion of ocean currents around him. Complementing this he wore a simple black cape, affixed magically to his shoulders, and brief black shorts, with subtle silver highlights. The rest of his body was exposed, as clothing and ornamentation was uncommon under the seas.
“As bearer of this crown”, responded Winter, “I promise to uphold the duty it embodies: to protect, represent, and dignify those under its domain, until such a time as one whose birthright it is may bear it. So I swear to you, the new Lord of All Waters.” He bowed his head and spread his arms, but did not go on his knees before Atlantica. When he finished his obsequence, their eyes met and locked.
There was no love lost between them. Winter’s mother had killed Atlantica’s eldest child. He, in turn, had demanded Winter be fostered in the court of the Northern Seas to replace his lost child, and also as guarantor that no similar incident be repeated. His life amongst him had been made miserable by Atlantica’s surviving bully of a child, Balanoptera. The tensions between Winter’s people, and Atlantica’s rose to the point where Balanoptera was sent as a pawn in a distracting assassination attempt against Devonshire, Winter’s mother, precipitating the war between the gods and Romitu.
Romitu was powerful, and with the aid of an ancient battle machine, was able to subdue the gods of the Romitu homeland. However, this was too much of an affront and the normally fractious gods of all peoples rallied to this indignity and prepared to put these people back in their place.
But an unexpected thing happened. The battle machine, when faced with obliteration, consumed the Soul of its controller and developed a life of its own. More than a giant simulacrum of a human being, it became one, but with immensely magnified power, strength and tenacity. With vicious brutality, it hunted down every single one of the originally spawned gods that took to the field that day and consumed them. It then fell silent again, and hadn’t stirred since.
An armistice was declared and terms for peace were quickly agreed. Both sides were in shock over what had happened. The remaining lesser gods stepped into a more active role helping their living followers, working hand in hand with Romitu on projects that they saw in their common interest. Each side went through great pains to foster this cooperation and to ensure that their powers were used to everyone’s benefit, and not for further animosity.
Winter was now caught up in one of the ‘grand bargains’ of those times. The Water Bearer had been one of the principles of the Romitu pantheon. The natural successor was Atlantica, but his son’s complicity in starting the war made this awkward. So, in return for Romitu not objecting to his elevation, he agreed to fostering his son to Devonshire, for an education in tolerance of surface dwellers and to guarantor his good behavior. His only remaining progeny was his foster son, Winter, who would ascend the throne he was vacating.
It was an excellent diplomatic solution. This meant that all involved felt uncomfortable.
The moment passed and cheers erupted from the assembled court. Winter raised his arms and surveyed his new subjects. Those who had looked disdainfully on him for his entire childhood clapped politely. Anyone who had any influence was being taken with Atlantica to his new court in Lake Larius beneath the Mountain of the Gods. Those who had just flowed with the current of the court were happy enough to flow in the new direction it was going. Many who feared reprisals from Romitu were actually pleased that someone so highly connected was to be their leader. It was a clear indication that they felt the Northern Sea was important.
The Tritons, however, were genuinely pleased. They cavorted and cheered and waved in honest delight. Winter had shown a genuine interest in their history. He had ushered in academics from the surface to explore and restore the extensive ruins built by their people. Since the fall of the gods, rumors were rife of him being romantically involved with one of their own. Certainly, with him at the helm, their lot could only improve.
And then there was the small delegation from the surface, to give their approval and blessing to the transfer for power. First and foremost stood his mother, beaming at him proudly and clapping the strongest. She dressed in her Elfin finest, with no thought to underwater custom. She had a path of space around her, as her reputation as a god-killer was well known in court and only bolstered by recent events. Penelope, the teacher at the prestigious Scioni Academy of Magic who had shown the most interest in local history, mingled with the rest. She dressed in local attire which looked quite odd on her Orcish frame. She had even convinced her mother, an Underground antiquarian, to attend. His Triton history teacher, Charonia, had hit it off with her quite well and the two were inseparable.
The clapping broke off into general celebration as the crowds began to mingle and the feast was revealed. To his surprise, Winter felt Atlantica’s hand on his shoulder. He turned to look up into his eyes and, not being the center of attention anymore, both of their gazes has softened.
“I love these people”, said Winter, haltingly. “I will do my best by them.”
“I love them too”, said Atlantica. “No matter how far away my court, you can count on my unquestioned aid for them when needed.”
Winter returned his clasp and the two parted.
With a pointed glance, Winter offered his arm to Cindarina. She glided up, a bit hesitantly, but slipped her arm in his anyway. It wasn’t an Underwater custom, as the people here rarely touched, but he was happy to break with tradition in this regard. He turned with her and began to circulate.
“I’m not sure the time is right for a statement like this”, said Cindarina in hushed tones. “We don’t have to be secret, but the crown is now yours and I have no official position in court.”
“Get used to it”, said Winter, from the side of his mouth. “I have no clue what I’m doing.” He bowed formally to a pair of passing Tritons who tittered as they moved on. “You know the names and lineages of everyone here. I need your help to pull this off.”
“Well”, she said, pursing her lips, “you should be able to handle this one.”
They had come up to his mother. She looked at him, proudly, but always a little sad. She had birthed him, but his father had been a battle god from a destroyed land. The General she served had uncovered references in old books of a great Kingdom to the North. Several of the 144 who arose to godhood after banishing the New Magic from the land came from there. He sent her with an expedition there only to find desolation, ruins, and Othr, wandering aimlessly alone. When they had banished the magic that had brought about the first cataclysm and ascended to godhood, they also banished their ability to remember things for more than a hundred years or so. She had bedded him and then, at his insistence, battled him the next day and gave him the peace of death in combat. Only later had she found she was pregnant, and magical examination revealed that Winter contained the reincarnated Soul of that god. It seemed he inherited his physiology as well. He had grown up as quick as a human. Entirely as a human. Not Elven or one of the rare Half-Elves. As such his mother was never quite prepared for the age he was.
“Well done, my son. Well done”, she said. Her normally gruff voice was even rougher than usual. He suspected she was choked up over the whole thing.
He bowed to her. “I probably have you to thank more than my own merits”, he said, lightly.
“Not at all”, she said, and poked him forcefully in the shoulder. “You stood by my shoulder and fought against the gods. You raised the alarm of the attack, and foiled the assassination attempt on my own life.” She turned and bowed deeply to his companion. “Don’t worry, Lady Cindarina”, she said in a stage whisper. “I am not forgetting your own pivotal role in all that. I’m just trying to bolster the lad’s confidence!”
“Thank you”, Cindarina replied in kind. “I’ve been trying all morning and could use the help.”
“Hey!” said Winter, miming being upset at their collaboration.
“Don’t mind me. You two go circulate”, said Devonshire, waving them off. “I’ll be at the bar with Greywind.”
“Is Greywind here?” said Winter, eagerly looking around. “Where is that miscreant?”
“Probably in a corner somewhere testing out how well his loaded dice work underwater”, Devonshire said, shaking her head. “I’ll chase him up and send him to pay his respects.” She moved off after a quick hug.
“I told you Mom likes you”, said Winter. “She wouldn’t gang up with you against me if she didn’t.”
“When it comes to your surface friends, I have no clue what I am doing”, said Cindarina, laughing.
“Well, then, this should be good”, said Winter, as Penelope approached with her mother and Charonia in tow. “Penny!” he greeted her fondly. “I’m so glad you could come.”
Penelope executed an intricate gesture that sent a swirl of currents over him. Her mother followed suit, and after a pause and with a pleasantly surprised grin so did Charonia. She then addressed Winter in a series of resonant sounds and clicks.
Winter squinted his eyes in concentration. He knew enough to recognize the language as Triton. Normally he could passably understand it, but, knowing Penelope, he guessed that she was using either a formal or archaic mode that was quite beyond him. He racked his brains and replied with what he hoped was “You honor me” in the vernacular mode.
Penelope continued, without a pause, and appeared to be introducing her mother. The one word that was clearly not in Triton was ‘Roxanne’, which he took to be her name. Roxanne made a much longer statement without a hitch. He had heard many rumors of Penelope’s mother. Most of them were about her being infinitely more scary and skilled than her daughter. Right now, Winter believed every single one of them, given how completely he was outmaneuvered by them.
But Cindarina came to his aid, responding to them. He recognized much of what she said from common Triton, but she did seem to have some grasp of the honorific bound mode they were speaking. They continued back and forth for some time and Winter was beginning to feel left out when Charonia caught his eye and gave him a quick wink. Obviously they were all having fun. And, since it didn’t appear to be at his expense, there was no reason not to let it continue.
He stopped trying to follow the conversation and looked more widely around the room. There was an immediate circle of Tritons watching the exchange with approval. In another corner was Atlantica, patiently receiving the tearful farewells of those who favored him, but he did not favor enough to take with him. Most of the rest mingled in their usual couplings exchanging the usual gossip. The unprecedented occasion did not perturb the usual interactions of the court.
Cindarina nudged him and his attention returned to their expectant faces. “You honor me” he repeated again, smiling widely and bowing deeply. “See”, he said to Cindarina as they moved off, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Many hours later Winter sat, exhausted, in his personal chambers. He had not yet moved into the royal apartments. He wasn’t sure he was going to. His own quarters had always been perfectly adequate, and being a foster son, were in the royal quarter already. He removed the heavy crown from his head and placed it, gently, on a nearby table. It was already overflowing with gifts from well-wishers and the addition of the crown caused a small cascade to float down off of it.
“You handled that very well”, said Devonshire. She sat in his guest chair, the tighter buttons and ties from her formal gear loosened and her hair no longer magically bound. She took a swig from a wineskin and then passed it to him. “I thought you might like a drink after all that. I don’t think I’d ever get used to the lack of drink down here.”
Winter accepted it and shrugged. “No grapes. No sun. No fermentation.” He drank a polite amount and passed it back. “Not that they aren’t without their vices here. Instead of drinking them, they eat borderline poisonous fish and clams that cause similar intoxication with fun hallucinations and worse hangovers thrown in for good measure.”
“I don’t look forward to dealing with that”, said Devonshire. She gave Winter’s bed a kick and there was an incoherent grunt and ramble from a shape curled up under the covers.
“Greywind?” asked Winter.
“Greywind”, said Devonshire. They both laughed softly.
Devonshire drank again. “I always expected great things of you, son.” She omitted that she had expected them to take longer to come to fruition. “But I didn’t think you would arise to godhood so quickly!”
Winter sputtered. “Hardly. I’m really just keeping the seat warm. It’s more of a ceremonial position.”
Devonshire shrugged. “Well, growing up they taught us in Religious Education about the Surge of the North Seas, the festivals, and placatory rights. If you ask the northern fishing villages they’ll say you’re a god. They’ll worship you, and mana will flow in your direction.”
“I wouldn’t know what to do with it”, said Winter. “And, if I remember my lessons correctly, the definition of a god, as distinct from a mage, is a creature who can work magic powered by mana received from worship.”
“That is the textbook definition”, ceded Devonshire. “But I’ve always wondered what would happen if a mage was put in that position.”
“I’m not a mage either”, said Winter. “I’ve never had the time to learn it. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have the aptitude.” He watched her closely to see if that either disappointed or enraged her.
Devonshire sighed deeply. As the head mage of the Scioni Academy of Magic, she had the whole world of things magical to offer to her son. But this fostership had kept him away, and the events of the day had robbed her of the time to lay the right foundation. And, who he had grown into was good, and worthy of respect. She had come to terms with the choices he had made and made the decision to support them, and not try to change them. “Well, you certainly have the aptitude for delegation! And”, she shook her finger at him, “I’m not being sarcastic. Too few people do. Most either dump things they don’t want on other people, or cling to things because their ego gets in the way of giving it to someone who is better at it. Don’t think I wasn’t watching you tonight. You did an excellent job.”
Winter smiled, despite himself. He had always counted the hours until he got leave to see his mother while growing up. But by the end of the visit things always turned confrontational. Something had changed though. The slaughter of the gods had sobered everyone up a lot. Maybe that was part of it. But she treated him as an equal as often as not, now, which, surprisingly, made it easier for him to treat her as his mother.
“I’ll just have to see how long I can keep it up for”, said Winter. “How long are you going to bust Balanoptera’s balls for?”
Devonshire laughed. “Oh, I’d really like to beat a lot of lessons into that pile of blubber. But I don’t trust myself.” She took another swig of wine. “If I made him as miserable as you have been it would be justice, not to mention cathartic, but would hardly demonstrate our moral superiority.”
“No mandatory history lessons with Penny?” asked Winter, disappointed.
Devonshire pointed a finger at him and smiled. “No. I like her too much. I racked my brains for something that might actually stand a chance of improving his personality.”
“Some of Lilly’s forced Will experiments?” Winter asked hopefully.
Devonshire snorted. “No. I signed him up for a tour of duty with the army.”
“Huh”, said Winter. “Digging ditches?”
“Canals actually”, said Devonshire. “I think he’ll actually be good at it.”
“Once he gets over the fact that he actually has to do work, instead of getting someone else to do it”, said Winter.
“Yes. That’s the character forming part”, said Devonshire. “But to actually do something he’s good at, receive praise for actual work rather than position, and see the benefits that his labor brings to others. That’ll prepare him to sit on the seat you’re keeping warm.”
“Devious”, said Winter, rolling the scenario around in his head. “Well, I know who I’ll be delegating my serious discipline problems to!”
Devonshire laughed and the two sat in silence for a while.
Winter’s smile faded as the minutes passed. He reached out and stroked the pearls of the crown. “Mom”, he said into the silence. “I’m scared.”
She turned, surprised, looking at him. “You’ve got this”, she said, placating. “I saw how you handled things. This is totally…”
“No”, interrupted Winter, forcefully. “It’s not that.” He fell silent again. Devonshire watched closely, but didn’t prompt him. “It’s the god thing” he said eventually.
“Well”, said Devonshire carefully. “I’m not sure that it is all that different. If the mana comes, and you find you can use it, I’m pretty sure you will use it wisely. If it doesn’t… we’ll work things out. I know you take your responsibilities seriously. You don’t want to see prayers unanswered. If it comes to that, the Academy will step in to work a few miracles where you need them.”
“Thanks”, said Winter distractedly. “I hadn’t even thought of that.”
“What then?” said Devonshire in confusion.
He looked up at her, his eyes wide. He pointed to his chest. “Dad’s in here”, he said. “Somewhere. He knows how to use mana. What if this pulls him out? You said he was very strong willed.”
Devonshire placed the wineskin to one side. She leaned forward and grasped his hand. “That’s not going to happen”, she said, emphatically. “He was bloody minded and obstinate. That’s different from your metaphysical Will. It doesn’t work the same. He’s neatly packaged under a nice layer in your Soul. It’s a barrier he can’t cross. Not of his own free will.”
“What if I summon him?” asked Winter.
“Why would you do that?” asked Devonshire, alarmed.
“I don’t know”, said Winter. “Given what’s happened it isn’t outside the realm of reason that there might be a situation where I could really use the abilities of a battle god that can use mana.”
Devonshire took a deep breath. “I don’t have an answer to that”, she said. “I’m not going to lie to you. We really don’t know an awful lot about this. We’ve only ever seen one ruptured past life barrier.”
“Lilly?” asked Winter. Devonshire nodded. “Mom”, he said again, very seriously. “I’ve been having dreams again.”
Devonshire stiffened. “What sort of dreams? Is he talking to you?”
“No”, said Winter. “Not exactly. Mostly I see windswept ocean, or a storm lashed shore. Occasionally a high mountain with lightning coming from its peak. It could be nothing, but it feels like him. It feels like what I think he would feel like.”
“Hmm”, said Devonshire. “This is new territory. You’re right. It might be nothing. But it might not be.”
“What should I do”, said Winter.
“Well, you are now your own master”, she waved around his surroundings. “No one can tell you that you can’t come or go. Settle into your routine, then come and visit the academy. There’s nothing to stop you now. I’ll brief Lilly and ask her to talk with you. She knows more than anyone else. She can work out if this is significant or not.”
“OK”, said Winter, but didn’t let go of her hand.
Winter emerged from the household teleporter with a start. The casual way they took magical transitions always took him by surprise. And, although dry land was his natural habitat, it was not the one he was used to. At least he remembered this time to wear more clothes than was his habit and he wasn’t chilled to the bone on top of it all.
Lilly’s lab was the same layout as his mothers. It occupied a floor in the same tower as hers, but a few levels lower. Unlike hers, it was neat and orderly. Both had the inner wall filled floor to ceiling with arcane jars. These contained the souls rescued when Romitu invaded the demon realm. They had yet to find a practical way to return them to life and sanity.
The echo of the door chime had barely faded when Lilly herself appeared. “Good morning, Winter”, she said. Winter knew that her absence of pigment, which left her with very pale hair and skin, and red eyes, unnerved most people. But, given the wide variety of life under the sea, this was far less disconcerting than her general lack of expression on her face and in her voice.
“Strong currents with you”, he said, reflexively. She raised an eyebrow and he corrected himself. “Good morning.”
“Your mother said you thought you might be experiencing symptoms of past life leakage”, prompted Lilly after a pause.
“Yes”, said Winter, standing there awkwardly. He really didn’t know what to do or say. He usually fell back reflexively on his mother’s training in the Elfin art of reading body language while on the surface. But Lilly’s stance was as blank as her face.
When the silence dragged on a bit more, Lilly blinked a few times as if remembering something. “Please come this way. I have some seats you may be more comfortable sitting on.” She moved to one corner of the room near the window. There were a few bookshelves there and a pair of chairs.
Winter sat in one and looked out the window. Directly opposite were the high graceful arches of the master tri-form arch. The original was an ancient work wrought by the mysterious Grey Elves who it was said created all of humanity as some grand experiment. But the foundations of it were built on older works going back tens of thousands of years. It was all beyond him.
“I’ve started having dreams again”, said Winter.
“You spoke of dreams once before to me”, said Lilly. “These were of a screaming entity crying and clutching at you. Are these the same?”
Winter blushed. “No, not like that.” He shifted uncomfortably. “They seemed more like an ocean current that for some reason I knew intrinsically was wrong, and that it was somehow connected with… him.”
“Othr?” asked Lilly. Winter nodded. He was reluctant to say his name, for some reason.
Lilly moved her hands through the air. Patterns glowed and shifted. Winter’s eyes widened as images leaped up in his mind. Dreams, visions and nightmares raced before him. Views of the ocean engulfed him, racing with Balanoptera, swimming with Cindarina and then suddenly stopped.
Lilly cleared her throat. “I’m sorry”, she said. “Let me start over.” She paused to compose herself. “Winter”, she said, looking at him directly. “I would like to take a pattern of these dreams. To do so I need to access your memories. This will involve a simple seeking pattern to establish the range of dreams, another to categorize them and a phrase to isolate those that diverge from normal and more likely to have come from an outside Will. Those extracted will be recorded in these crystals here. Afterwards you make take them with you or destroy them if you are not comfortable leaving them here. Do you consent to this?”
Winter grinned weakly. “I guess your normal subjects don’t get much choice”, he said, looking over at the stacked soul jars.
“No, they don’t”, said Lilly. “But I should have remembered. Magister Devonshire specifically asked me to assure you that she would not have access to them.”
Winter’s smile became more genuine. “Thoughtful of her.” He sobered a little when Lilly didn’t return the smile. “Yes”, he said, “I consent. No point otherwise. That’s what I’m here for.”
“Very well”, said Lilly. “It will probably be easier if you close your eyes and do not focus on any sensation. Don’t think of anything in particular. I wish to see if I can derive what is analytically different, not just what you think is different.”
“OK”, said Winter. He did as he was asked and settled back. The affect was different this time, more subtle. It was like he was truly remembering things. His mind flitted, unbidden, over thoughts and memories, images and scenes. And with them, so did his emotions. They seemed random, for the most part. But as time passed, the sequences started taking on the disturbing nature that he had been worried about. Experiencing them awake, they were much clearer than recollected dreams.
Storm winds blew over the surface of the ocean, tousling wave’s crests with spray and sea foam. The grey water heaved in great swells several times his height. The sun shone, moon like, through a thick layer cloud. It shifted to the waves pounding on an equally grey shore. The shingle rocks repeatedly shattered by the storm. Cold rain fell on twisted and stunted vegetation. A promontory rose up from the shore to a tall mountain silhouetted against the racing black clouds. High up on the summit something jutted up, and it almost looked like a body hung from it.
And then it was over.
He opened his eyes with a start, and found he had been clutching the chair with a fierce grip. It felt as if he should be covered in a cold sweat, but there was nothing but a gentle breeze on his skin. He looked to Lilly, but she was focused on several glowing crystals levitating above her palm.
“Did you see it?” asked Winter. “Is it him?”
Lilly let the crystals settle in her palm before answering. “Most interesting”, she said. “You were right. These dreams are out of character. I do not believe they are being generated by your own Will.” She looked up at him. “But I am certain they are not coming from any past lives of your Soul. The seal there is as intact as when I first examined you. There has been no tampering. Even doing an active probe did not perturb anything. The source of these dreams is something else.”
“But what?” asked Winter. If it wasn’t his father trying to break through his Soul and control him, who could it be? He had no enemies that were unaccounted for.
“I do not know”, said Lilly. Winter looked crestfallen. “But, based on some other research, I can prepare something that can monitor you and look for deviations in your Will. With that as a trigger it can do a scan to see if it can isolate where the perturbation is coming from. Would you like that?”
“Yes”, said Winter, quickly. “I’d really like to know who is doing this. Do you think it could be another old enemy of mother’s?”
“I couldn’t say”, said Lilly. “Magister Devonshire had a very colored past. And her position as chair of the Academy makes her a target as well. But it seems an awfully indirect way to pursue a vendetta.” She considered him for a while, gently brushing the crystals. “These images. You find their occurrence disconcerting, but their subject matter is not disturbing, yes?”
Winter shrugged. “I guess so. Wind. Waves. The Sea. These are not things that are unfamiliar to me.”
“This makes a relation to Magister Devonshire also unlikely.” Lilly shook her head. “My theory is that it is directed entirely at you.”
“Great”, said Winter. “I thought I finally got rid of all my enemies and a new one pops up.”
“I would not conclude it is an enemy”, said Lilly. “Yes, the message delivered may be strange. Many times when people try to communicate something to me in other than straightforward terms, I find it strange and disconcerting. But in most cases their intent is benign. This may be true in your circumstance. Although it may not.”
Winter furrowed his brow. “Other than this watcher-tracer thing, is there anything else I should do?”
Lilly passed the crystals to him. “Consider the message. By touching the crystals and concentrating, you can review their contents. If this is intended to have meaning for you, weal or woe, then you should be able to work it out.”
Winter took the crystals. “Thank you”, he said.
Lilly nodded. Then, after a pause said “You’re welcome.”
Lilly had an ethical dilemma.
That wasn’t unusual. Her understanding of ethics was academic, not intuitive. She had been created by the same Magus who had created the Ævatar, the great fighting machine that Bianca had operated against the gods. She had been created for the Ævatar, to be the one to operate it. The scale of its Animus created an enormous vacuum in the Soul dimension. So no operator with a Soul could control it. Thus she was created, a creature with no Soul.
Her first patron had been Lady Angelika, Mistress of the Hidden Rage. She was a mage from before the first cataclysm. She was there when the new magic was discovered. But during the wars that followed she had been on the losing side and ended up in an underground cyst, frozen in blue crystal. Scioni’s agents had found her, and recruited her to his cause. And she is the one who first took in Lilly when she was discovered. No one else knew what to do with her.
Angelika was more skilled in the New Magic than any of the rest. They had only rediscovered the six books relatively recently, while she had had them for at least a decade. She was especially good with Soul magic. If she were still alive today she could probably help considerably in the disposition of the myriad bodiless souls they seemed to be collecting. But she was not. Not precisely. When she died, subtle magics sprang into motion which guided her Soul to Lilly, and gifted it to her.
But, it didn’t stop there. She had also left information with Lilly by other means. Her notes and research on Souls. Specifically on how the boundary layers were created between the past lives when one Soul was reincarnated in the body of another. At some level Lilly knew she had been ‘played’. She, of course, felt very lost without the guidance that Mistress Angelika had given her. She used the information to open a window into the past life contained in her soul, and was able to talk with her patron.
When the others found out they were quite upset. They did not feel it ethical for Angelika to exert this influence on Lilly and ‘operate’ her as she had done the Ævatar. A trial was convened and, for other ethical reasons, the only other person from her culture, Gwendolyn, was asked to sit in judgment.
Gwendolyn was another mage from before the cataclysm, although she came to this time the long way. She had been in a faction opposing Angelika and all other mages who had abused the new magic and wreaked devastation. Once they had victory, all the rest ascended into godhood. Gwendolyn refused, for more ethical reasons. She also refused to judge Angelika, as they had once been enemies. Instead she offered her vassal, Coral, who was a student of the ethics of the time.
Testimony was taken, evidence weighed, and justice was rendered. Lilly got to keep her new Soul, but the breach was repaired and she was under strict orders not to open it again. With a Soul, Lilly could not operate the Ævatar. This held them back a lot until Bianca discovered how to shield her Soul against its pull. But something happened in that battle. Bianca’s shield failed, possibly intentionally, and her Soul was devoured by the Ævatar. Now Bianca was without a Soul. But, after the Ævatar slaughtered all of the gods, Bianca had sworn to never operate it again.
Contrary to popular belief, an understanding of ethics did not have anything to do with your Soul. Of anyone, Bianca was generally considered to have the least sense of ethics even before she lost her Soul. Yet she refused to operate the Ævatar which she had spent so many years of her life studying. And, despite gaining a soul, Lilly was none the wiser at resolving ethical dilemmas when she came across them.
Normally, when she was unsure, she went to Jack for advice. The Royal spymaster was generally despised by all, and also considered someone with no sense of ethics. Lilly suspected this was true. But from her perspective, it meant that he understood her confusion. He did not consider her thoughts ‘callous’. And he was always able to explain what the ‘correct’ ethical choice was for any situation in simple terms of who would or would not benefit from any decision. She disagreed with the rest. She felt the Dwarf had a very deep understanding of ethics. He just chose differently when his royal duties required him to.
The problem was, this particular dilemma was about if she should tell him something or not. That made it impossible to ask his advice on it.
The dilemma occurred to her once Winter had left. She had thought about it for several days but was no clearer on the choice. The only other two people who she might use the term ‘friend’ for were Bianca and Jesca. She did not go to Bianca for ethical questions, and Jesca was the Queen, and was awfully busy. In any event, she felt that it was the opportunity to make a decision herself. Jack himself feared that, one day, he would be compromised, and would become untrustworthy. She was now a senior mage in the academy, and wielded great power. It seemed important that she learned how to make decisions without consulting everyone else.
Jesca had said there are times when you should take advice from others, but also other times when you just had to decide for yourself. She had watched her dare a demon lord to single combat, against all advice to the contrary, because she thought it was the right thing to do. Lilly’s heart beat fast at the thought. After they had finished baiting each other, and Lord Halphas had started his attack, she had been scared. She could not recall any time in her life she had ever been scared. Many things had been done to her, many experiments performed on her, all her life. Others seemed shocked and horrified at them, but that was just the way it was to her. She had no fear for her own life. But when she saw Jesca standing there, such a small figure, and the fist of the demon tearing huge rents in the ground, she was afraid for her.
And, somehow, that made a difference. It was in that moment, overcome by this terrible unknown feeling, that it clicked with her. A demon is an amalgam of Souls, and their magics had, to that point, had little effect upon it. They were mostly based on patterns and a being made up of a myriad of patterns was nigh unto impossible to target. But in that fear inducing moment of concentration, Halphas had wrought his souls into alignment to smash Jesca. Lilly created a pattern of what they had converged into, and attacked. The others had seen this and jumped in with her. After that, the demon was finished.
She did not fear for Winter as she had feared for Jesca. She understood he was strategically important, and that Magister Devonshire was even more so, and would be completely distraught if anything happened to Winter. She was also known for acting rashly, which could put them in a bad position. But Jesca had shown that ethical decisions were not based on strategical analysis. ‘They came from the heart’ was the best description anyone, other than Jack, could come up with.
Well, if her ‘heart’ had persuaded her to leap to Jesca’s defense when afraid for her, then if she speculated feeling for Winter as she had felt for Jesca, the heart’s advice seem to be to do what was most protective. When she looked at the two choices before her, one was, clearly, more protective of Winter. She took a deep breath, reconsidered her analysis, and made her decision.
Lilly asked Jack to meet her at the commercial gate in the city of Romitu. Oxcarts rumbled past kicking dust up into the air. The winter rains had started to slacken and the increasing sunny days like today quickly burned away the damp. But the days had not yet become oppressively hot nor had the river begun to smell.
She threaded her way past the bulk carriers and other people with goods waiting to pass through excise. There were short lines for individuals without anything taxable, and a nearly empty one for those traveling on government business. The official nodded and smiled at her as she presented her credentials. People tended to remember her. She noted that he checked them as thoroughly as anyone else. Jack would be sure to ask and would be satisfied that security precautions were being followed even for well-known people.
The portico of the building was cool, so she stood there looking out over the crowded market. The commercial gates pre-dated the new magic and had long been a feature of the city. It was the natural place for one of the many markets of Romitu. Here and there she saw buildings that had been repaired. The gleaming white of new magic generated marble filled in the gaps in the brick and stucco work like scar tissue. Since the gate, itself, was of strategic importance, it was well defended during the god-fight. So the damage was less here than in other districts.
Romitu was the most diverse city in the Empire. Creatures from all of the surface races could be found here, and, increasingly, traders from the Underground arriving through Irontree. But, even so, the majority of people here were human. It should have been easy to find the Dwarfs amongst them, and then work out which one was Jack. But he liked to blend in. And he also liked to test her powers of observation. Cross training he called it.
She gave in that she was not going to spot him from the portico, so she moved into the crowd. It was hot and humid, and the crowds of people made her uncomfortable. When she got a bit of breathing space she made some flamboyant gestures and summoned magic. Sparks glinted off of her fingers leaving little smoke trails that gathered together into the shape of a large dragonfly. Its glow died down, but it remained scintillating as it hovered over Lilly’s head. As she moved it maintained station between her and the sun, casting its shade over her. It quick darting moves, and glinting talons also kept people warily at bay.
“Hello Jack”, she said, to a middle aged man who had his head down in a bowl of stew at a food stand.
The Dwarf looked up and appraised her, “Hello Lilly”, he said. “What lead you to me this time?”
“The bowl did a good job of hiding your beard, and the stool disguised your height”, she began. “I was sure that I would not be able to locate you based on your physiology. So I created a distraction”, she indicated the dragonfly, “and looked for the person that wasn’t looking.”
He nodded approvingly. “Good thinking. I guess I was trying too hard not to pay attention.”
“And”, she continued, “you have a box of pastries from the shop on Via Michael.”
Jack raised his eyebrows and looked down at the box on the table. “I should have known you could spot these from a league away.” He handed them over to her.
She received them gratefully. “Where shall we talk?”
He gestured for her to follow him and he led her to one edge of the market. A building there had been adsorbed into the market, with many traders holding space there with heavier, less portable and more expensive goods. Several cried their wares hopefully, others, figuring them to be from the government, were politely wary. He moved into the shop of someone selling large cabinets and chests of exotic wood, slipped him some money, and went through a curtained alcove in the back. A winding stair took them up several flights to a balcony.
They had a wonderful view over the market, the gate, and the city beyond. Fragrant plants screened the edge making it hard to see who was inside. Lilly felt the slight tickle of protective magics spring up and mingle with her own. Jack sat in one of the comfortable chairs and indicated the other one to Lilly.
“I have some information for you”, said Lilly, without preamble.
Jack raised his eyebrows. “It is most unusual for you to bring me information on your own initiative”, he said. “Usually you wait for me to ask.”
“Usually I have much information and very little understanding of what might interest people”, explained Lilly. “I am trying to be more… discerning.”
“That is good”, said Jack. “If you explain to me how you decided to come to me I will tell you how accurate you are.”
This is what she liked about Jack. He understood that she did not deduce things the same way as most people. He never took offense, even when she was wildly wrong. She never felt awkward talking to him.
“You explained to me that your job is to assess threats to Romitu. And, by extension, to threats to people who are pivotal to Romitu. And, by further extension, to people who might be used as social leverage against people who are pivotal to Romitu.”
“That is correct”, said Jack.
“I was given some information recently in confidence that is pertinent to someone in that last category.” Lilly bowed her head slightly and rubbed her chin. “You have given me much advice about classes of information. And how we must put barriers around some and not around others. I still have much to learn about assessing information and deciding what class it should belong to.”
After she paused Jack prompted, “Are you unsure if this is information you can tell me or not?”
“No”, said Lilly, “I am quite sure it is information that I should not be telling you.”
Jack leaned forward, curious. “Ah, are you going to try to hint at it, without telling me, so as to not break confidence?”
“I do not think I am that skilled yet”, said Lilly. “I have thought about the situation and circumstances and decided that I should break confidence and tell you.”
“I see”, said Jack. “And what lead you to this choice?”
“I believe it is the ethical thing to do”, said Lilly.
Jack sat back again, both eyebrows raised. “Thank you for your trust”, he said.
Lilly breathed deeply and composed herself. She was glad that he did not immediately disapprove.
“It has come to my attention”, she began, “that some force we do not know of is influencing the dreams of Winter. He is the son of Magister Devonshire, who is a senior mage in the Scioni Academy of Magic. Whoever is seeking to influence him might use that as social leverage against Magister Devonshire to the detriment of Romitu. I have judged that the danger of this is more important than my directive not to discuss this with anyone other than Winter.”
Jack scratched his beard. “It’s not coming from his… Father?”
“No”, said Lilly. “I am quite sure of that.”
“Has it only started since he assumed the throne of the Northern Seas?”
“No”, she said again. “It predates that event.”
“What is the nature of these dreams?” he asked.
“Unclear”, she said, looking out over the market. “He felt… disturbed by them. Not unreasonably so, but he was able to determine they were out of place. I only confirmed that with magic. They did not evoke any specific feeling, and didn’t mean anything more to him than to me.”
“Most unusual”, said Jack, furrowing his brow. “I did vet the list of people that were to leave with Atlantica. There shouldn’t be anyone left with a major vendetta against him.”
“And we have no reports of any significant magical use by anyone there”, said Lilly.
“True”, said Jack. “Do you have any way to narrow down where it is coming from?”
“Yes”, said Lilly. “I used some variants of the spells we have used to track down the Mackheath knife and deviations in your Will. These will hopefully allow us to work out when a sending occurs and, possibly give us a direction.”
“Good, good”, said Jack, scratching the back of his neck. “That’s a start. I can see if I can deploy any assets to the court there to see if I can find any malcontents.” He shook his head. “Although it is tricky getting someone to blend in. Maybe I should see if I can recruit someone there instead.”
“There have been many more student exchanges between the Academy and the Northern Seas since Winter came to the throne”, Lilly proffered. “I believe he is applying, with Penelope’s help, for a magical grant to restore the old Triton ruins.”
Jack nodded. “That works. I can use that to get someone in. It is probably worth recruiting as well. Although they have been neutralized as a threat, eventually Winter will step down. Or, we can arrange a transfer and get an informant in Atlantica’s new court.” He looked up. “Thank you Lilly. This information is very useful.”
“Do you think I made the right decision then?” she asked, not entirely certain.
Jack sighed deeply. “The problem when you start making your own decisions”, he said, “is you often don’t know for a long time if they are the right ones.”
Something scratched on the door of Jack’s sanctum. His brow furrowed and he looked up from his desk. This was his office, buried deep in the bowels of the high city. It was within the magical confines of the Royal Palace, and he had his own protections, magical and mundane in place. The fact that none of his alarms had gone off meant it could only be one thing. “Come on in, Makda”, he said tiredly.
The door creaked slowly open. There was nothing but darkness on the other side. In the middle an eye opened, the light from the room glinting off of it. Then another and another until there were eight. Out of the darkness squirmed a hairy, jointed leg. It was followed by another and another until there were eight. They pulled at the door and the darkness squeezed through the door and into the room.
“Oh thank you, thank you!” hissed Makda in sibilant joy. The creature scuttled from floor to table to ceiling and then down onto Jack’s desk, coming up within inches of his face. “Saahabneta is so kind to see poor, pitiful Makda. And Makda is thankful, oh yes I am! Yes I am thankful every day that the powerful Romitu did not obliterate poor, pitiful me into the night like Saahabneta and all the other gods. I try so hard, Makda does, to be helpful and useful.”
The self-effacement went on for some time. Jack had heard it all before. What Makda lacked in originality it made up for in enthusiasm. Or at least affected enthusiasm. It was the god of deceit, intrigue and darkness, after all. You could never trust it too far.
“Thank you”, said Jack, when it paused for breath. “Your devotion is quite satisfactory.” It had seemed a good thing, at the time. In abject horror after the obliteration of its previous patron and every other major god, Jack made his pitch. It was a perfect opportunity to gain a foothold amongst the new gods. Although much more accessible and cooperative now, he couldn’t image the gods liked Romitu much, and had their own intrigues and plots that he would have difficulty tracking. What better than to have the god of spies on his payroll?
Makda had backed off a bit and was oozing in and out of the corners of the room, all the time keeping up its fawning dialog. He had to admit that it had skills. Very few people could get past his outer perimeter like that. His inner security was a few notches higher, and he hoped that it wasn’t also compromised. He was afraid to test it. The real problem with Makda was directing those skills. Normally you just had to find the right reward. Not being obliterated appeared to be Makda’s main aim, so it was a little hard to deliver that in nuances.
“Did you find any more information out on Mackheath?” Jack asked when it looked like Makda was winding down.
“Oh!” it cried in joy, scuttling back up to within inches of Jack’s face. “I know what Saahabneta seeks! I know, I do. I have sought it too. Nothing would make me happier than making you happy, and I know nothing would make you as happy as catching the sneaky Mackheath and smashing it into tiny, tiny, silver splinters.” The last pronouncement was accompanied by a frantic jumping up and down motion that although vigorous, did not disturb anything on Jack’s desk.
“Yes, and is today the day you will make me happy?” asked Jack, trying not to lose patience. Makda writhed and moaned piteously, pirouetting circles on the floor in abjection. Jack took that as a ‘no’.
Mackheath was a sword. A particularly evil sword. Whatever spirit was bound within it was the embodiment of the perfect assassin. They didn’t know precisely because they hadn’t suspected it when they had it, and once they suspected it, they no longer had it. Some speculated that that it was a paragon demon, representing the commensurate expert on a given subject. But a sword on its own couldn’t do much. So, it attracted a host to possess.
Jack had once been possessed by that sword. He wasn’t sure what he had been before that. His memories of the time were quite disjointed. The sword worked by overriding his Will with its own. Whenever the sword needed Jack to do something, he ‘remembered’ doing it before and just did it based on this ‘knowledge’. That fact that these ‘memories’ were from a different height, and his race or gender was different when he caught a reflection never bothered him. Any time it might have, the sword just willed him to think of something else. When the sword was done with him, it dislocated his Will, and left him a helpless wreck. Normally this would have been fatal, in time. But he was already working for Scioni and, with the new magic; it was a simple matter to reconnect his Will.
It was quite a different matter to put himself back together. No longer being willed to just not think about the discontinuities of his memories, it became apparent his life was a completely jumbled mess of mismatched experiences. They called him ‘the patchwork man’. He could still function, but he had no idea what were ‘his’ memories and which were just recalled memories that bled over into his own consciousness.
Worse, upon departing, the sword had made off with a copy of the Six Books of Magic. This was the main thing that gave Scioni’s faction an edge. Misuse of it had spawned the first cataclysm, and they feared that it would cause a second. And now there was one copy unaccounted for. And it was because of their chief of security.
Jack had been desolate. His own advice had been to kill him, and do everything in their power to prevent anyone from bringing him back. The chances were too great that the sword could exert control over him again at some critical point in the future. Just about everyone else agreed with him.
Scioni took a different view. Based on the magical analysis he concluded that Jack had not actually been responsible for his own actions, and should not be treated as such. Retrieving the books was of the highest priority. And, the best person suited for the job was Jack. The risk of him being turned renegade was there, but it could be managed magically.
No one liked that. Least of all Jack. Because Scioni was right. Jack worked himself to the bone trying to track down Mackheath, and retrieve the books. Unfortunately that had proven extremely difficult to do.
Initially the sword went back to its usual pattern. Rumors of Mackheath would appear in a town. Interested parties would make contact, and a contract established. The fiction maintained by whoever the sword was possessing was that all of his memories would be diverted into the water contained in a magical gourd. When the job was completed to the person’s satisfaction, the gourd would be emptied and all the evidence destroyed, even from Mackheath himself. This gave them something to go on. But, after a few near misses, the sword changed tactics. Contracts were no longer done ‘in person’. Instead he would work through intermediaries. This kept him chasing his tail for years.
He had hoped that Makda had contacts and an approach that would create a breakthrough. And it did provide interesting information that Jack hadn’t been able to acquire otherwise. Apparently the sword had been created as a devotion to a minor assassin god a hundred or so years ago. It had been a sacrifice, and act of piety, commissioned by a life-long devotee in his final years. Jack had raked the god over the coals, but there had been no direct involvement. In fact, the sword was now more widely known than that god. He was back to square one, with Makda forever promising more and better information.
“You do, indeed, have marvelous skills”, interrupted Jack, as Makda continued his self-promoting monologue. Before he could launch into his obsequious praise speech he continued. “Lady Gwendolyn said that Aeron, later the god Grave Keeper, was the craftiest of them. He revealed at the last that he had kept detailed notes as protection against the memory loss all the old gods had.”
“Ah!” said Makda. “Silly old gods with the amnesia. Not so the new gods. We remember all. Especially our friends!”
“Yes”, said Jack. “I would be very, very interested in seeing those notes.”
“A challenge! Yes!” said Makda. “A very worthy challenge. To break into the crypt of Grave Keeper? To rob from the tomb of the god who punishes tomb robbers? Yes, yes. Saahabneta has given a great challenge to poor pitiful Makda. So great it might dash me asunder.”
“If you don’t think you’re up to it…” started Jack.
Makda shuddered and pulsed and his limbs all but separated and skittered over walls, ceiling and floor. “Great deeds take great effort. And great effort takes great time. Let you down I will not. Never in a thousand nights. But such must be done carefully and with great planning.”
“I know you will not rest until it is done”, said Jack, hoping he kept concealed that this was his fervent wish.
“I shall sleep with no more than half my eyes!” promised Makda. “But, if Saahabneta would be so generous, so kind to poor pitiful Makda, you could help me plan if there was some particular part of these notes you wanted”, said Makda hesitantly. “It may be easier to steal some at a time, if not all are in the same place, or if I have to exchange a decoy for some of the manuscripts.”
“That’s a fair point”, said Jack, considering. He thought for a while. The conversation with Lilly came back to him. One thing he lacked was any background on where Winter’s father had come from. “There were once gods to the far north, and a people who worshiped them. In ancient times they were called Norslanders. I don’t know what they called themselves in later times. Only that their chief god was Othr. Do you know of these?”
“I am so sorry to confess that this is something I do not know about”, said Makda, piteously. “I am a new god and although my memories are pure, they do not stretch back far.”
“Understandable”, said Jack. “The people and their gods were wiped out in something called the ‘Great Betrayal’. It has something to do with the ‘Black Hole’.”
“Oh!” said Makda. “Of that I know, it borders my land. Dark and evil those lands are. They protect their secrets well. Many of my worshipers have sought to prove themselves there but always The Forsaken have taken them.”
“Good”, said Jack. “Then this will benefit both of us. See if the Grave Keeper has any notes about this ‘Great Betrayal’ or the origin of ‘The Forsaken’.”
“The Grave Keeper is a formidable enemy, I’m not sure if, in death, he will be any less of a challenge than in life. But Makda will do the best.”
“Thank you”, said Jack. He stood up and bowed formally. Thankfully Makda began to shrink away into the back recesses it had come from.
Deep under Mount Mytikas was a dark chamber. The surface of the mountain of the gods was populated with the grand palaces and homesteads of the gods of Romitu. Many, however, stood newly idle. Their gods having been slain in their fight with the Ævatar. Souls who had joined their god in the divine realm mostly kept about the devotions they had enjoined for decades, but with a little less surety. Some new gods, like Atlantica, had stepped into place and taken up the mantle of their previous lieges with little fuss. In other cases, where the selection wasn’t obvious, there was much subtle jockeying for position and influence. Other estates, either of loners or for those with undesirable fields, just idled, with no clear direction. All was made more complicated as no one had really stood up to take over from Sky Father to lead the pantheon.
The palaces all stood on the mountain, and in many cases were built into the mountain. Their basements and store rooms were dug deep, and there were also the connecting tunnels, escape routes, spy holes and many hidden access points for the inevitable intrigue. Unbeknown to most, there was even another layer of secret passages leading deeper and deeper into the mountain, traversed by secret spies listening to secret whispers. All of this hidden information made its way down, like water carving intricate caverns, through the center of the mountain, to a deep dark chamber.
Nocturne lounged in the deep soft pile of her velvet black settee. Soft silks draped her skin, every one of them black, but of different textures. Long black hair fell in cascades over her black skin, fading as it did so into the darkness of the chamber. It was impossible to tell where it ended and the general darkness surrounding her began.
The only light in the room came from the dim glow from the coals nestled in the bowels of an enormous hookah. It was made from wrought iron and crystal, with accents in jet and two long snaking tubes bringing the dark grey smoke to Nocturne and her guest.
“Yes, yes”, cackled Makda, inhaling deeply. “Saahabneta thinks he is most wise, sending Makda off to find the deep hidden secrets of the Lord of Tombs, now that he is buried in his own crypt. He thinks the task will keep me busy for some time.” It exhaled, and the cloud of smoke slowly diffused into the general gloom of the room.
Nocturne smiled politely and threw it a honeyed curd ball. Makda consumed it with gibbering smacks. “And how long did you tell the spymaster it would take?”
“Oh, promise nothing, did I, but that I would eventually get all for him”, said Makda. “I think it best to feed it to him and drips and drops.” It made a kind of plopping noise with its tongue. “Keep him happy and uninterested in slaughtering poor pitiful Makda.
Nocturne laughed gently. “Pitiful indeed.”
“You do have them?” asked Makda, suddenly suspicious. “You do have the notes of the dead god of the dead?”
She paused to inhale another puff from the hookah, and then let it out slowly, watching Makda fret. “Of course”, she said at last. “No sooner than the battle was over and his court was in chaos did I get a copy of everything.” She shook her head. “Now that was a busy night. So much opportunity. So little time.”
“Ha!” laughed Makda. “You are the mistress of the hidden ways. And a fine, fine friend to Makda. That is why I bring you all the most useful information. The most valuable secrets. Nothing have I held back from you!”
“You have brought me a few things I didn’t already know”, admitted Nocturne. She threw it another curd ball.
“Then you will share some of these secrets with me?” asked Makda, ingratiatingly, after consuming the treat. “So I may placate Saahabneta? This will be good for both of us.”
Nocturne again paused, playing it out. “Of course”, she said finally, much to Makda’s relief. “Although I do respect another collector of information, what I would really like to know is why he wants it.”
“Ha!” laughed Makda, with many cackles. “So too do I. This is of most interest to us both. But, clever Makda, I have already worked it out.”
“Oh?” said Nocturne, genuinely interested.
“Yes, yes”, chortled Makda. “I told him that I could only steal parts of it at a time. Oh! It is so hard. The crypt master’s crypt is so scary!” It covered many of its eyes with many of its limbs. “So, asked I him, what is most important? What should I steal first?”
“Clever”, said Nocturne, generously. “And what was his answer?”
“Intrigue of course!” said Makda. “But intrigue on the biggest scale.” It paused theatrically. “He is most desirous to know of The Great Betrayal!”
“Never heard of it”, said Nocturne.
Makda waved its limbs in frustration. “It is old. Older than most of the new gods. It is from when pantheons of gods went to war with each other.”
“Pantheons don’t go to war with each other”, chided Nocturne. “It’s not allowed. Only our worshipers are allowed to directly confront each other. It’s the one law every pantheon has in common.”
Makda clicked its claws together. “And why do you think the law was made?”
Nocturne put the hookah down, folded her arms, and considered the ceiling. Small chips of mica had been set into it, and they dimly glinted like the stars far above. “You don’t need to be Lawgiver to know that laws are only ever made about things people actually do, not things they don’t do.” She threw Makda a curd ball idly. “So does he think that the pantheons once warred?”
“Yes, yes”, said Makda, drawing closer. “He spoke of another land. Another people. Another pantheon. Ones that are no more.” Makda hissed in excitement. “Norsland he called it. And their god Othr. If they are no more, this is what must have happened.”
“I know only of the southern godless people”, said Nocturne, “not any from the North.”
“Do Grave Keeper’s notes not speak of this?” said Makda, with worry.
“I haven’t read them all”, said Nocturne, defensively. “There are a lot of them. The guy was a stickler for being thorough. Mostly I concentrated on recent intrigue.”
“A good policy for making the most of now”, said Makda. “But we should read wider, and maybe find what is worth knowing.”
“I’d still like to know why he wants this information”, said Nocturne. And, before Makda could object, “You’ve told me what. That doesn’t tell me why.”
“For that, I think we have to give it to him, and see what he does with it”, said Makda.
Nocturne considered. “Very well. Let’s go consult the archives.”
She rose from the divan and cloaked herself about with more darkness. Makda glided along behind, almost wispy. They passed through tunnels and clefts. Each junction concealed with something as simple as a blind, or as complex as an intricate machine. They passed the people of her domain. Copying ledgers, creating strange apparatus, or reading. Most looked up, but none said anything.
Presently they came to a wide chamber, carved from the rock by rushing water. Only the sound of a trickle remained. Ledges had been terraced along the sides and bookshelves filled them. Most contained volumes bound in gray canvas, with silvered letters glinting on their spines. The only light came from pools set about the room reflecting moonlight, although there was no moon to be seen.
Dark robed scribes moved about. They methodically took down books, read them, and made notes in journals. When Nocturne entered they silently put down what they were doing and assembled at her nod.
“We need to pause the indexing”, she said. Makda wandered the dark corners behind her. “We’re looking for specific information about an event called ‘The Great Betrayal’, a land called ‘Norsland’, and another god called ‘Othr’. It’s likely to be from the journals before the foundation of the first Romitu empire.” They nodded, and with a few exchanged words, returned to the shelves and began taking down books.
Nocturne gathered together some darkness into a throne and lounged in it. Makda crawled up behind her, shrunken to a smaller size, and perched in its shadows.
They did not have to wait long. Right away the scribes assigned to the earlier volumes came forward with references to a ‘Norsland’ which described it as a day’s sail North across a sea strait from Zeppen. It was the domain of one of the pantheons that had coalesced as the gods first dispersed, and then joined in groups for common benefit. An interesting fact all on its own. Maps soon followed showing it as three major islands and dozens of smaller ones. Towns with names like Chapman’s Haven, Agnafit, and Tunsberg.
Prominent in the tales were mentions of the god Othr. There were mentions of his wife Frijjo, and other notable gods such as Donar, Yngvi, and Loptr. Their epithets were mostly of battle and fighting, and they seemed to fight one another almost as much as anyone else. The journals recorded intrigues amongst them, and between them and the deities of the tribes that became Romitu. All very similar to most of what Nocturne had skimmed from the early recordings. Old, dead gossip.
But it quickly became apparent that there was a sharp divide. In the older journals, mentions were frequent enough, but in the more recent ones there were none at all. It was a simple matter to just skim a few books from each century to eventually find what separated the two. Then it got quite interesting.
There were a series of reports logged in the journals of the raids from Norsland on the lands of the Romitu pantheon, as well as those protected by the Sindhu and the Kemet. Great effort was shown to show that the raids were increasing over time. Nocturne consulted with Makda and, being experts themselves, they were quite sure the books were cooked.
Proposals and treaties were recorded between the three pantheons, all proposing unification against a common enemy. Implicit in the language was the possibility that there could be other ‘enemies’ in the future and that, so united, none could stand against them.
Then there were detailed logistical tallies of who was ready where, and with how many weapons and the difficulty of getting serviceable ships. The tedious detail of the Grave Keeper’s scribes nearly sent Nocturne to sleep, so she had others skim them and asked them to bring more of the unfolding events.
She missed the exact pretext, but the war, long planned for, broke out. There were detailed accounts of each major battle. There were a few early victories for the Norslanders. Mostly sea battles where they were the undisputed masters. But the gods of Romitu, Sindhu and Kemet joined battle and used their magic increasingly to augment their troops. When they started marching over the sea floor, across the water, or through the air it became a slaughter. The Norslanders were outnumbered, but facing the obliteration of their race, with all parleys and negotiation refused, they had no choice but to fight on.
And fight they did. Their gods joining and often falling with each major town. The land itself joined in with erupting volcanos and tidal waves. It sounded quite messy. The journals recorded it all, clinically and without passion. As the defenders dwindled, their gods became more pre-eminent. Eventually it ended up in a titanic struggle as gods hurled vast energies that overturned the landscape, drowned whole armies, and generally killed all non-divine participants.
“And I thought the god-war we just had was bad”, said Nocturne, after reading one account to Makda.
“But what of the law?” asked Makda. “The Great Betrayal? Does it get worse?”
More books were brought. Events unrolled before them. After a crescendo of violence Othr and the surviving Norsland gods had most of their reserves spent. The league against them was also depleted, but collectively they were still strong enough to defend themselves, but probably not enough to pursue an attack against a new foe. It was at this time that the other pantheons decided that an intervention was necessary.
The other pantheons saw quite clearly the threat these three unified pantheons could be. Inaction now would only spell their doom later. They did not have the years needed to form a more subtle or lasting unity, but the need was obvious enough that they jointly called on the three to halt their attack or face the combined ire of the rest of the world. Having won their aim, they did so.
What they had not counted on was the shock their actions had caused. A whole people had been devastated. Gods left without worshipers. And a barren sunken seascape where once a land had been. There was genuine outrage and a determination that this was not to happen again.
What to do about it took a while to sort out. Reading it from the perspective of the modern age, where they had lived for a millennia with these rules, it seemed obvious. But it took them a while to establish such basics as pantheons being limited to expending mana only in regions they had gathered it from. So territorial expansion could only be pursued by their moral followers. No attacks between deities were tolerated. And all actions were to be commensurate with the scale of worship being conducted where they were.
Once consensus started to be approached, the discussion came to what to tell their mortal followers. Although everyone felt a great wrong had been committed, Romitu, Sindhu and the Kemet were still too strong to realistically think of punishing them in any way they didn’t consent to. It is hard for a god to change their mind in front of their worshipers without losing credibility. Royalty is never wrong; they are just badly advised. In that spirit the gods of the three pantheons decided to re-interpret events and blame the followers who had run off to war. They had done so without their god’s blessing, and so god’s wrath had destroyed them. There were days of mourning declared, but the lesson of the day, ironically, was how hubris brings about downfall.
And that was fine for the mortal realm. But in the divine realm, there were all these newly arrived souls who had been there, and were personal witnesses to the events. It just wouldn’t do to have them around for eternity voicing a different take on what had happened. Neither could they be traded en masse to the demons. You never gave the demons something you wanted to keep secret, only something you wanted made an example of.
Welcome neither in heaven or hell, each of the three nations parceled off a portion of their land where they met. Into this was herded all of those from any of the four countries who had participated. They were not alive. But they were also not allowed to pass on into death. They damned to eternity in what was now called The Black Hole. They were The Betrayed. The Forsaken.
Nocturne emerged in a dark corner of the kitchen. It was still a few hours before dawn, but she knew Grania would be there. Her palace was quiet. The multitude of functionaries and artisans that populated her court were mostly asleep. All but the bakers.
Grania stirred, mixed and kneaded her divine dough. The ovens around her had been set and were just beginning to start their warming up. Their light was still low and the room not yet stifling. Unlike the lofty pillared halls of the rest of the palace, this kitchen was made of brick and fieldstone. Honest materials, though vast in scale.
Nocturne watched Grania work. She did not enter especially stealthy, as she could, so she knew there was no way Grania was not aware of her presence. Nocturne bided her time, waiting until Grania was ready. She was here to collaborate, not for confrontation.
She was sure Grania had plenty of people to knead her dough for her. But, being a god herself, she could sense it was more than that. As her hands pushed and tore the pliant surface, all over the wakening world many of her devotees were doing the same. She was in communion with them. She felt their thoughts, their wishes, and desires, and also their fears and worries.
In time the last ball of dough was prepared and slung on a board to proof. Grania leaned back against a counter, dusted the flower from her hands, and turned to look at Nocturne. She raised an eyebrow.
“Greetings to rich-haired Grania”, said Nocturne, formally. “Lady of the golden sword and glorious fruits.”
“Greetings to Nocturne”, said Grania, not quite as formally. “Sable lady of the night, and lurker in kitchen corners.”
Nocturne smiled and the shadows withdrew from her. She leaned, equally casually, against the opposite counter. She glanced to the dough and back. “And how is the world today?”
“Uncertain”, said Grania. “The wheel of the seasons has limped along for most of a cycle since the god slaughter. Each festival and celebration is a new reminder that things are not like they have been for generations. The gods move cautiously to fill the gaps. So there is a great deal of uncertainty.”
Nocturne nodded slowly. “Things would move a lot faster if we had a leader to show us the direction.”
“Yes”, said Grania, and watched Nocturne closely.
“There are those who say you are well positioned to be that leader”, said Nocturne. Grania snorted. “Most of Hearth Mother’s followers are already looking to you for direction.”
“And you have gathered many of Grave Keeper’s”, retorted Grania.
Nocturne smiled and looked down. “Tedious pedants”, she said. “They are useful for some things. But I care not for the rites of the dead.”
“Few will follow Atlantica, Water Bearer’s heir. He’s too… provincial. We need another Sky Father.”
“Yes”, agreed Nocturne. “This makes you kingmaker. If people are looking to you, and seeing you as Hearth Mother, pick a consort, and he will become Sky Father.”
“It’s not really the direction I want to go in”, said Grania.
“I suggest Lucas. He was Martius’s chief of logistics. Seems a reasonable match”, said Nocturne.
“You dare come to my kitchen, matchmaking?” said Grania angrily. Her eyes glowed and all the coals of the fires burned brighter.
“I come bearing information”, said Nocturne, quietly. “And, from one who hoards information, that should mean something.”
Grania anger quietened. “And what information is that?”
“That having a chief god who excels in military logistics would be a good thing.”
Grania rolled her eyes. “So are you here to stir up trouble between us and the Romitu?”
“No”, said Nocturne. “I think there’s going to be more than enough trouble for both us and Romitu to try to handle.”
Grania watched her in silence for a while. “All right. I’m listening.”
Nocturne stood, paced to another position, and leaned against another counter. “The old gods had more dirty laundry than we thought.” She folded her arms and stared at the floor. “So, you know that bit of no-man’s land between Romitu, Sindhu and Kemet?”
“The Black Hole”, said Grania. “It’s a dark spot I can’t see into. Not that I’ve ever really cared to look. I seem to remember something about a people there who turned their backs on the gods.”
“More the other way around”, said Nocturne. “Suffice to say that they were an embarrassment to the gods, so they were locked away there. A long, long time ago. I’d say they’re pretty pissed at us by now.”
“I’d reckon so”, said Grania. “But they’ve been there all my existence. And if it’s that long ago, why would they be any more pissed now than then.”
“The pertinent item of information is that they were locked away there”, said Nocturne. She looked up and met Grania’s eyes. “But all of those maintaining those locks are now dead.”
“Oh”, said Grania. The implications sunk in. “And what’s happened?”
“I don’t know”, said Nocturne. “I considered going and looking.” She smiled with half her mouth. “All this active involvement in the world has me thinking back to when I was mortal. The adventures I had were quite something. Legendary, in their own time. But my responsibilities are greater now. Figured I should resist the wanderlust.”
“How long have you known?” asked Grania.
“Only a few hours”, said Nocturne. “It could be nothing. But it could be that a ravening horde of undead monsters that have had a millennium or two to build their spite against us has been unleashed on the world.”
“In which case we would be in for one hell of a fight”, said Grania.
“Which is where having someone good at military logistics could be quite handy”, said Nocturne.
“Mmm hmm”, said Grania. She felt the temperature of the ovens and checked the rising dough again.
“It’s a good reason to talk to him”, said Nocturne, twirling an insubstantial strand of hair. “He’s good looking.”
Grania gave her a withering stare. “This is politics, not teenage courting rituals. And, besides, I thought we were talking about the end of the world.” Sighing, she muttered, “Again.”
“Our world has already ended”, said Nocturne. “There’s a new dawn coming.” She looked pointedly at the high narrow slit of a window. A dull rose color was just beginning to show.
“In case you haven’t noticed, there hasn’t been much of an army loyal to the gods for some time”, said Grania. “I doubt Lucas has teams of scouts ready to deploy.”
“But we have had armies, over the centuries”, said Nocturne. “Surely he has agents amongst his court that he could send?”
“Logistics isn’t the same as intelligence”, said Grania. “Even if he has inherited some of Martius’s court, and the wonderful military chain of command has kept them out of disarray, I’m not sure that would be the most subtle approach.”
“Don’t you have assets you can deploy?” asked Nocturne.
Grania grimaced. “My assets are not known for their subtlety either.” She folded her arms and considered. “We could deploy Romitu.”
Nocturne smiled. “The mortals? With their god killing army? And who do we have who is on speaking terms with them?”
Grania waved dismissively at her. “How could I forget who? I’m mocked derisively for it all the time behind my back.”
“Not from me”, said Nocturne, quietly.
“I know”, said Grania. “I have my own spies.”
“As does everyone”, said Nocturne. “It’s just that mine are the best.”
“That they are”, said Grania. She stood straight, and started sorting through bins of currants, caraway seeds, and wheat berries with purpose. “Well, you get your spies out there pouring vinegar into people’s ears about this purported undead army. About how badly we are positioned to deal with it. Tap your Grave Keeper converts to paint a dire analysis. I’ll work on making Romitu aware of the problem and amenable to helping.”
“Will do”, said Nocturne. She came over to watch Grania sift and measure ingredients. She stood very close to her. “We understand each other.” The expression on her dark face was hard to read. “You know, I could be your consort. It would be… interesting.”
Grania looked down at her very seriously. “It would be very… non-traditional.”
Nocturne broke into a broad smile. “Very. But, then, we are. It’s new world. We can make new rules.”
Grania’s stern expression softened. “Let’s start by just working very well together.” Nocturne pouted slightly. “Now shoo.”
Nocturne blew her a kiss and then faded into nothing.
The sun broke over the horizon as Demara walked across the camp of the 32nd Army of Romitu. The night winds had left a thin coating of yellowish dust across the tents giving them a muted tone. A few birds started as the wildlife finished its active period and began its search for shelter from the sun. Contrary to the logic of nature, the people of the camp were just beginning to stir and make ready for the day.
Demara hiked her skirts up again, resettled her bread basket, and continued her march. This was only a temporary camp, and she didn’t have the luxury of a permanent bakery. Not that the magically erected temporary ovens of the army weren’t that bad. It is just that they lacked the solid structure of a building to shield the heat, hold the variety of implements she was used to, and all those seldom used, but serendipitously vital ingredients.
But the 32nd was on civic duty. This time building a canal. Once a week, like clockwork, they spent a day moving the camp a few miles down their newly created trough. And, each time, they erected another monolith.
The Kemet liked them. They were traditional. Of course, the traditional use was to mark the majesty of potentates, and to venerate the gods. The first Romitu Empire had put an end to the potentates. Even, as it contracted and Kemet gained independence, it was ruled by a council rather than a single, all powerful ruler. The gods were the gods, though. Monoliths to potentates tended to get recarved every few reigns or so in honor of the current ruler flexing their muscle. Monoliths to the gods tended to last.
At least until now. Demara furrowed her brow. She still hadn’t come to terms with the massive deicide. On one hand, the gods had been given a reasonable offer by Romitu, and it was their own obstinacy and unwillingness to change that lead to their downfall. On the other hand, the slaughter of every single major god that raised a hand against Romitu seemed a bit of a disproportionate reaction.
And, in fairness, almost everyone agreed. Queen Jesca had been astounded and mortified. It was her war, her plan, and she was not the sort to shirk responsibility, even if it ate her alive. She had called in Demara as soon as the shock wore off and sent her as an intermediary to sue for peace, with the same terms as before the war. She had gone out of her way since then to be as generous as possible with the remaining gods.
Demara was even surprised by Bianca’s reaction. She had most directly precipitated the slaughter. The Academy’s best theory was that it was her lingering Will imposed on the Ævatar that drove its actions. Demara didn’t know anyone as cold hearted, power hungry, and nihilistic as Bianca. It would be fitting to say that justice was done by the fact she lost her Soul when the Ævatar self-activated. But Demara had seen how shattered she was. The Ævatar had represented everything Bianca had dreamed of, spent years working for, and now had access to infinite ultimate power. But she refused to get in it again. She wouldn’t go anywhere near it. It was amazing to see someone lose their Soul, but gain a heart.
So the monoliths they built now did not honor any Kemet potentates, or any of the gods. Jesca still refused to have any royal portraiture enacted with new magic. She felt it would be disproportionate to her predecessors. So, instead they were pretty abstract. Some lauded the army, others such concepts as ‘good works’ or ‘cooperation’.
Drawing near to the one that had been erected at the center of this week’s camp, she suspected that the real function of them was the shade the command tent.
She put her bread basket down and filled her hands full of water from a magical tap near a horse trough. She slicked her hair back and repined it in place with the grain shaped clips she used. Taking a deep breath, she picked up her basket and strode into the tent.
“Hey toots!” A rough voice greeted her as she let the tent flap down behind her.
“Morandor”, she said, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the relative dimness.
“Larger than life”, he said. He grinned up at her with a toothy smile set in a bushy black beard. The Dwarf lounged in a camp chair, one leg up over the chair’s arm. He scratched idly at his arming jacket and looked her up and down appraisingly. There was the distinct scent of beer in the air.
“I’m looking for the general”, said Demara.
“Look no further”, said Morandor, spreading his arms. “The hot seat is currently occupied by my hot body!” He wiggled in his chair for emphasis.
“I meant General Ainia”, said Demara coolly.
“You don’t need to see her”, said Morandor. “She’s off duty. So it’s me you get to deal with. Unless it’s a personal visit. But in that case I’m still happy to see you.” He wagged his eyebrows.
Demara sighed. “It’s a military matter. I don’t know if it’s important enough to wake Ainia for.”
“Is the bread revolting?” asked Morandor, eying the basket. “I can take care of that.”
“Keep your tongue in your mouth”, snapped Demara, pulling the cover off the basket.
“But the ladies like that part the best!” protested Morandor.
“Yes, well”, said Demara. “Moving right along. I’ve received a message for you from my god.” She had pulled out a large loaf from the basket.
“Oh?” said Morandor, looking skeptically at the bread. He waggled his fingers. “Do you, I don’t know, read the position of the poppy seeds like other priests read sheep entrails? Lay your own interpretation on them?”
“Yes”, said Demara. “But in this case I think god’s intent is sufficiently clear to that it can be ‘interpreted’ even by your remedial brain.”
She handed the loaf to him. He scowled at it with a furrowed brow. The caraway seeds it had been dusted with had clumped together to form a neat row of clear script.
POSSIBLE BREAKOUT FROM THE BLACK HOLE. PLEASE PATROL PERIMITIER.
“Neat trick”, said Morandor. “What are you up to?”
“If I was up to something”, said Demara, “you would know it. I don’t beat around the bush.”
“I’d happily beat your…” started Morandor.
“Drop it”, said Demara testily. “Now are you going to do something about this or do I have to wake up Ainia myself?”
He looked at the bread and scratched his chin. “What does it mean ‘breakout’? It’s not like there is anything there to break. There’s no wall. There are not even any markings. People can wander in or out anytime they want. It’s just not generally healthy.”
“I can only read the writing on the bread”, said Demara sarcastically. “I’ll leave it up to you to do the interpretation.”
“Me and my remedial brain”, said Morandor. He tore off a chunk and ate it. “Mmmm. Tastes good.”
“Well, it was touched by the goddess of bakers, what do you expect?”
“Clarity?” said Morandor. “Nah. That would be expecting too much.”
“It’s clearer than sheep entrails”, said Demara.
Morandor pointed at her. “I’ll give you that. A damn sight tastier too.”
“I’d swap recipes for kokoretsi with you, but I really think the message is probably more important than the palatability of the delivery device.” Demara continued to glare at him.
Morandor got heavily to his feet and brushed down his arming jacket. “Well, a patrol isn’t hard to organize. I think I can manage it.”
“Thank you”, said Demara.
Morandor picked up a coat of mail and shimmied into it. “You can thank me with a kiss.” He winked at her.
Demara took a step back. “You should be so lucky.”
He looked hurt and disappointed. When he got no reaction he jumped a few times, settling the mail around his contours and belched. “Let’s go see who’s on duty today.”
Morandor strode around the awakening camp. Another glorious day in the 32nd army! He stopped and glared at a pair of troopers who had paused while filling in a latrine. They hot footed it and got back to work promptly. He moved on, smiling to himself. It wasn’t a bad gig, as things went. Leastwise not if you were an officer.
Sure, there was the occasional pain like being expected to invade a demonic dimension, or be cannon fodder while the gods fought it out. But they always prided themselves in getting everyone back. And they had the magic to do it. So the occasional death, although painful and hideous, wasn’t that much of a price to pay. Besides, you got a bonus for giving your life for the empire.
He mounted a reviewing platform and looked out over the camp. There were other fringe benefits as well. Not far below him were several Amazons taking their morning shower. They noted him, gave a brief salute, and continued on with their ablutions. They had no body shyness whatsoever, and Morandor loved that.
The 32nd army was one of the ‘Amazon armies’. Mostly that referred to its founding back in the first empire. When the empire had conquered Amazonia it had proved somewhat difficult to rule. One of the emperors, or empress if Morandor remembered rightly, had the notion of raising three armies primarily of Amazon citizens. Typically one was used to further Romitu conquests, and the other two to patrol and pacify Amazonia. It proved a successful formula.
During the chaos of the magical plague and disintegration of the first empire, the three Amazon armies had turned renegade and were officially disbanded. It was Scioni who reconstituted them again. Mostly because two of his core leaders were Amazons, and nostalgia brought in many recruits. Quite a few from Amazonia itself, and from the Amazon diaspora. But to bring it up to full strength, standard recruits were drafted or assigned to it. Modern Amazons, after several centuries of Romitu rule, didn’t have the historical problems working with men as of old.
Morandor sighed again, and reluctantly moved on from watching them shower. They weren’t as comely as some, but they certainly beat Dwarven women in both looks and lack of inhibitions. He’d take what he could get.
He passed down the rows of tents, heading towards the stables. Everyone was about their work and he just had to look officious for the odd slacker to snap to it. He took the opportunity to tighten the buckles on his boots where a cadre of Amazons was changing into their work clothes. No, sir. Not like the ‘Dales at all.
He, himself, came from Westdale. A massive upthrust of rock east of Kemet. Not far away was another massif, imaginatively named Eastdale. They were said to be the last two of seven ancient Dwaven kingdoms. The rest were all somewhere in the Underground, and lost to legend. Morandor had his doubts about if they ever existed at all. These days all their trade and contact was with the surface, and that meant Romitu.
In his political phase, Scioni, the great architect of new the Romitu empire, had made bringing the ‘Dales into The Amphictyony, that bureaucratic interregnum abortion, his cause célèbre. Greedy people on all sides supported the notion, relished the expected taxes and exploitation of markets flooded with cheap Dwarven goods in one direction and surface cast-of Amphictyony seconds in the other. Treaties were signed, hands were shaken, and great plans made.
But Scioni was one of the sneakiest bastards Morandor had ever seen. Buried into the language was that the ‘Dales were to be brought on-par with the other major Amphictyony cities. The raison d’être of the Amphictyony was the care and maintenance of the municipal gates that linked their cities and provided for the trade (and taxes) that they padded their pockets with. In due course Scioni, who had netted the expansion department, sent out a tender to all major centers of magic for bids to construct the ‘Dales gates.
A year passed, and there were no bids.
It was rather a shock for The Amphictyony to discover the wherewithal to build the gates fueling their cash cow was lost with the fall of the first empire. But, with a prepared flanking move, Scioni put forward a proposal to ask members of his own personal household skilled in the magical arts to devote themselves to rediscovering the art of gate building, if suitably funded. With the embarrassment of the lack, future expansion plans on hold, and the ‘Dales screaming about treaty violation, it passed easily.
And, to be fair, he did deliver on it, and had the two gates built within the year. However, what really earned Morandor’s enduring respect was that while doing so, his people had also mastered building smaller gates for all the secondary cities. He rolled these out at the same time. This was met with ecstatic welcome by those cities, which had always been shut off from the most profitable trade, and made him extremely popular there. Since the gates were privately funded, supported and operated, the fees collected, which were lower than the municipal gates and willingly paid, were also privately owned by Scioni. That, and the reduced traffic (and taxes) to the municipal gates caused most of the Amphictyony reps to go into apoplexy.
It wasn’t long after then that Scioni left politics and went back into his preferred field, military command. Morandor knew a winner when he saw one. He signed up at the first opportunity, and had never looked back.
His boots rebuckled, all blemishes removed from the polish, hobnails tightened, and Amazons completely dressed, Morandor rose and resumed his journey. Scioni had built this army like a well-oiled, well-crafted machine Morandor’s own race so admired. So much so that a half-skilled pissant such as himself could glide along as an officer and actually be effective. Certainly General Ainia was no genius either. But they both knew the buttons and levers to pull to get the contraption to chug along and do what it did naturally, and to collect praise for doing so.
He wrinkled his nose as the wind shifted slightly and made it clear he was approaching the stables. Maybe he’d put in a request to the Magic Academy. He had heard they were going so overboard with magical supplements that they had plans for a magical latrine that scrubbed your arse for you. Maybe they could do something about the smell of the stables.
A stable hand spied him and shouted out the presence of an officer, as he let him in and secured the gate behind. There was a wide, sandy paddock, with a few horses in it either being saddled or unsaddled, and a few more being led through exercises. Canvas stalls lined two sides and a large hay filled cart was parked in one corner.
Morandor strode up and down for a few minutes, pretending to be interested in the details of what everyone was doing. He had no idea and didn’t really care. All he needed to be able to see was a guilty start or shifty glance. Then he would use the ‘hairy eyeball of death’ on them and a confession was almost always proffered. But this morning everyone seemed self-confident enough to have actually been doing their duty or hiding their slacking professionally.
“Which stall is Mercedi’s?” he asked the stable hand.
“Number twelve, Sir”, she said enthusiastically. “I’ll take you right there.”
“No need, trooper”, said Morandor, laconically. “I’ve mastered the art of reading numbers. You just get back to your duties.” She saluted and scurried off, trying to look very busy.
Morandor grunted and walked the line of stalls. Mercedi had her good points, but she also had her irritating points. Overall she wasn’t his favorite person to deal with. Which was saying something. Morandor mostly couldn’t tell one trooper from another one. The baby faces humans had all kind of blurred together for him. Even the ones with facial hair. Most of the time he didn’t need to distinguish beyond their rank and role. That suited him fine. The fact he actually recognized her name when he read the duty roster was something. But it was just easier to deal with her than pick someone else and risk throwing sand into the machine that was the 32nd. He had a fear that if he ever perturbed its gears that he’d actually end up having to do work!
He slid the gate open to stall 12 and strode in. A bay horse looked up from its feed trough at his entry, trailing some hay in its mouth. Morandor looked around the stall; saw a pile of tack and harness, a saddle, and other gear, but no one else. He looked quizzically at the horse. “So where is Mercedi?”
The horse whinnied and shook its head towards where a hay bale had been spread out over the sand floor. Morandor looked back at the horse skeptically, but it had gone back to eating. He wandered in that direction and then saw her, lying down spread-eagle in the hay.
She was topless and wore only the briefest of loincloths. Her black hair was bobbed in the usual Amazon style, but she lacked the typical red war paint. What was also atypical was her skin. It ranged from a light green on the underside to a dark almost brownish green where she was most exposed.
He had asked Ainia about that once, and had been told that she was a fringe Amazon. They were from the marginal outskirts of Amazonia bordering on the outer waste. The land was poor and food was frequently scarce. Their sun goddesses has blessed them, however, with some essence of plant. Hence the green skin. They could gain limited sustenance by lying out in the sun, like a plant, and adsorbing its rays.
Kind of freaky. But Morandor had no problem embracing cultural diversity. Especially when it took the form of exposed female flesh. The fact she did this at the drop of a hat was what he considered one of her good points. Her face was relaxed and her breathing steady. She was probably asleep, but Morandor didn’t want to take the risk and admire the view too long.
“Trooper”, he commanded, in a stern tone.
“Yo”, she said, but didn’t get up.
Morandor gritted his teeth. He considered most of her bad points to be centered on when she opened her mouth. “This is Major Morandor.”
“Yo sir”, she corrected herself, equally lazily.
He scratched his beard in frustration. “You’re the scout on duty this morning. I have a mission for you.”
“Cool”, she said. She stretched a bit, and then got slowly to her feed. “What’s up?”
Morandor crossed his arms and stared up at her. The view was pleasant so he let his glare continue. He knew it was pointless, though. She had the temperament of a lizard. He had never got around to asking Ainia if their sun goddess was reptilian.
“We have received intelligence that there may be a disturbance from the Black Hole. Its border may have been compromised.”
“Downer”, said Mercedi. Not quite the serious response Morandor was looking for.
“We need the perimeter scouted to verify or refute this.”
She nodded slowly. “That’ll take a few days. Say three.”
“Understood. We’re not trying to engage. Just look for anything unusual. Take a mage, but other than that, keep it small. Make it as fast as you can.” Morandor kept his eyes on hers, to try to convey as much seriousness as he could.
“Rightio”, she said. “With a mage, I don’t think I need anyone else. No point sending runners if we can send messages by magic.”
“Works for me”, said Morandor.
“Did the… intelligence say anything else?” Mercedi asked.
“I’m afraid not”, said Morandor. He preferred to keep her on her toes. But just in case this turned out to be something, he thought it better not hold anything back. “The information came from the other side.” He nodded meaningfully. “I can’t vouch for it, but I can’t ignore it.”
Mercedi nodded slowly. “Right”, she said. She pointed her finger at him and winked. “I’ll get on it.”
She looked around the stall and then picked up a saddle. “Was that it?” she asked, stumbling towards the horse.
“Yes, I guess that is it”, said Morandor, trying to hide his irritation. “Send word on the instant if you find anything.”
“Sure thing”, she said, tossing the blanket over the back of the horse. “Sir”, she added.
Mercedi sat astride her horse on top of a low ridge. The land beneath her horse’s hooves was cracked and broken stone, with low shrubs clinging to it. Gullies and scree slopes cut through it making for rugged, treacherous terrain. Beyond her a shadow fell over the land, like a passing cloud might cast. Only there were no clouds in the sky at all. It was the only visible sign of the edge of the Black Hole.
Rocks fell and skittered as another horse climbed the slope next to her. On its back a young man wearing a mage’s crest rode uneasily. The grey and white spotted horse did more guiding than the brown skinned man. He wore a loose white tunic with a broad red brocade sash. Loose white trousers covered his legs and another length of red brocade was tied around his head to which his crest was pinned. When the horse finally came abreast of Mercedi he relaxed in his saddle and looked up and around the place.
“See anything?” he asked.
“Not a fly, Bala. Not even a fly”, said Mercedi.
“That would be unusual, yes?” he asked, uncertain.
“No, not so much at this time of day”, she said. She had donned a pair of chaps to guard against the rough and occasionally thorny bushes. But other than a bandolier to hold a quiver of arrows, she wore little else. “So it’s hard to guess if something is up, or nothing is up.”
Bala took a long swig from a water skin, and then splashed some over his face. He offered it to Mercedi who took it, swallowed a mouthful, and handed it back. “Shall I do a scan?”
“Why not”, said Mercedi, still scanning the horizon studiously.
Bala stowed the skin and composed himself. Eyes closed, he brought his hands up, and began to make traceries in the air. Geometrical shapes made of glowing nimbuses appeared and slotted together. They vanished in a flash centering on the palm of his hand.
“See anything?” asked Mercedi.
Bala opened his eyes again and stared at his palm intently. “Not a fly”, he said, with a smile.
Mercedi smiled back, and guided her horse down the slope.
“What exactly is in there?” asked Bala, after they reached a relatively level portion.
“No idea”, said Mercedi. “You grew up around here. Why don’t you tell me?”
“Hmm”, said Bala. “All I know is what grandparents said to scare the kids into obedience.”
“Tell me that”, said Mercedi. “It would be better intelligence than we’re getting here.”
Bala thought for a while. “They call them ‘The Forsaken’. They’re ten foot tall, with big feet like termite mounds. No hands, just long claws. And their faces… they are just blank. No eyes, nose, mouth or any senses. That is their punishment, and that is their desire. They creep out of the Black Hole at night, and look for children who haven’t gone to bed. They can’t see, but they can feel your soul. When they find you, they steal your face. They take your senses for their own and leave you stumbling around unable to scream for lack of a mouth. At this point the other grandparent would usually leap into the room with cloth bound around their head chasing the children to bed.”
“Huh”, said Mercedi. “I think that would have kept me up all night, rather than going to sleep.”
“Ah”, said Bala, wagging his finger. “But it would have kept you in the house!”
Mercedi smiled and nodded. “We had dhubs. They’re sort of a poisonous lizard. Not really venomous, but they creep out at night and eat dead things. Their bite is pretty bad and nasty. Likely as not to get infected which is as good as poisonous.”
“That would keep me inside”, said Bala.
“Inside isn’t good enough. They spend the day under rocks so they can creep and crawl through cracks as small as your finger. And a sleeping body looks much like a dead body to them.” She shrugged. “We had to sleep on the roof.”
Bala nodded. “Not much rain, eh? Not that different from here.”
“Not that different”, agreed Mercedi.
“Feeling nostalgic?” asked Bala.
“Nope”, said Mercedi. “Other than for the sunshine. That’s nice to feel. Romitu is too cloudy. And Irontree is positively gloomy.”
Bala laughed. “Maybe I spent too much time there. I like the fresh air there. And trees! So many trees!” He looked around at the barren lands they rode through. “I thought you would like that. I thought dryads love trees?”
“I figure so”, said Mercedi. “Dryads are tree spirits native to the mountains along the northern ridge of Romitu. Never met one. They just call us dryads ‘cause our skin is greenish. No actual relation.”
“Oh”, said Bala, meekly.
“I’m a desert creature”, said Mercedi. “This feels about right to me.” She looked out over towards where the shadow loomed. “Minus the hordes of evil faceless ones.”
A couple of hours later they had descended from the top of the highest of a series of ridges. It marked the border between Kemet and Sindhu. They stopped on a promontory down the slope, but high enough to give a good view. A saddle blanket hovered in the air providing shade for the two horses and Bala. Mercedi sat in the sun as they waited out the noontime heat.
Bala had reconstituted some flatbread, steamed rice and pungently sauced vegetables that he had magically stored earlier and shared them with Mercedi.
Mercedi enthusiastically scooped it up with the bread and ate it. She nodded out over the broken plain. “I hated the idea of going through Sindhu without stopping for food. Your country really knows how to cook! I swear I never ate in the canteen when I was stationed there.”
Bala nodded his head shyly. “Whenever I go home my parents do nothing but cook and cook so I can deconstitute food to take with me. They do not think the army feeds me at all.”
“Compared to food like this”, said Mercedi, “it doesn’t. Please give her my compliments the next time you are on leave.”
“You are kind”, said Bala. “I will.” He, too, looked out over the plain, then nervously back at the darkness of the Black Hole. “I know this is my land, but it does not feel like a homecoming.”
Mercedi shook her head. “We’re just on patrol. I think this little no-one’s land was a convenient place on the map for the border between Romitu, Kemet, and Sindhu. It’s not anyone’s home. We’ll be out of Sindhu and into Romitu tomorrow.”
“Unless we meet trouble”, said Bala, worriedly.
“Yes”, said Mercedi. “Unless we meet trouble.” She glanced up at him, and out over Sindhu again. “How far from here does your mother live?”
“A day’s march or so”, he said quietly.
Mercedi nodded. “Let’s hope we don’t meet trouble.”
They finished their food silence. When done, the kits cleaned and stowed themselves away. The sun was still high in the sky so they waited a while longer. Bala continued to gaze into Sindhu.
“Do you get home often?” asked Bala.
Mercedi had untied her chaps and lay, prone, on the other saddle blanket. “Not anymore.”
Bala cocked his head. “Not anymore? What happened?”
“The god slaying”, said Mercedi.
“Oh”, said Bala. “Were your parents very religious?”
“I wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t”, said Mercedi.
“Is army service a religious devotion?” asked Bala, confused. “I have heard you are a warrior people.”
Mercedi levered herself up on one elbow and studied him. “No”, she said slowly. “That’s just self-flattering bigotry from exiles. Anyone can kill someone. Giving birth is a devotion.”
Bala looked acutely embarrassed. “I- I- I am sorry” he stammered. “Most of my knowledge is from hearsay and rumors. I did not mean any offence.”
Mercedi lay back down. “OK. None taken.” He sat for a while longer, head bowed down in shame. After a while Mercedi propped herself up again. “You really don’t get it?”
Bala swallowed heavily and shook his head. “I don’t even know what I’m not getting.”
Mercedi puffed her cheeks out. “I don’t have parents”, she said, emphasizing the plural. “I have a mother. I have sisters, aunts, and a grandmother. That’s my family. There aren’t men in Amazonia. None at all.”
“None?” said Bala, confused. “But how do you…Where do children come from?”
“The usual place”, said Mercedi, with a half-smile. “Only when a woman wants to be a mother she goes to the temple of Myrine, not to a man.”
“I always assumed there was some secret rites”, said Bala. “That somewhere…”
“There are many secret rites”, said Mercedi. “But we don’t pro-create like the beasts do.” She sat fully up and dusted her arms off. She continued to speak, almost reciting. “You must compete in the games: to show you are strong enough to defend your child. You must compete in debate: to show you are smart enough to educate your child. You must give generously to the temple: to show you can provide for your child. If the mother goddess is pleased with you, then you will have a child.”
Bala looked surprised. “It seems kind of unfair. If you must beat everyone else to have a child, there can’t be too many children!”
Mercedi smiled and shook her head. “Our competitions are not ones in which there is only one winner. You have rivals only to provide an opportunity to rise to a challenge. Everyone comes from different circumstances. It would be unfair to cast judgement one to another. What is important is the devotion you show.”
“Oh”, said Bala, nodding. “You are here because your mother was sufficiently devoted. She could not have given birth to you otherwise. So, as a matter course, she was religious.”
“Yes”, said Mercedi. Her expression became grimmer. “And do you see why I haven’t been home?”
Bala shook his head, and then stopped, concentrating. After a moment he sat up sharply and his jar dropped. “The gods are dead! Your mother goddess, Myrine, must be dead too!”
“Yup”, said Mercedi. “Now you get it.”
“But… but…” stammered Bala. “Children! Where do your children come from now?”
“They don’t”, said Mercedi.
“That’s terrible!” exclaimed Bala, truly shocked.
“Yes”, said Mercedi. “It is.”
“It cannot be let lie! This must be fixed!” said Bala, with agitation.
Mercedi looked at him curiously. “But what can be done? Everyone said the Ævatar consumed all the gods past recovery.”
“Yes, yes”, said Bala. “There’s no helping that. But the quickening of a child… I wonder what is involved.” He stopped and blushed furiously. “I mean… is there a process we can trigger magically? The new magic we have and god’s magic share the same origin. There’s nothing the gods ever did that we can’t do. I wonder if anyone is studying it.”
“It seems an odd thing to study, given the wars”, said Mercedi.
“No, no”, said Bala. “There is much study of Souls, and where they come from. How a new child acquires a Soul. But I would have to ask higher up if anyone has looked into quickening. I’m sure it can’t be too difficult.”
Mercedi laughed. “I’m not sure it would catch on.” Then she looked resigned. “But I guess it beats bestiality.” Her face froze as she looked past Bala. Both horses had stopped feeding, and were staring fixated in one direction.
“Scan please”, said Mercedi. She slipped her bandolier on, picked up her bow and moved, crouching, towards a large stone between her and the direction the horses were looking.
Bala looked around anxiously. He took a deep breath, and performed the same incantation he had done previously. This time small motes of magelight hovered over his hand. His face paled. “I’m getting… there are lots of them. All over!”
Mercedi’s eyes widened as she took in his reading at a glance. “They’re coming up the valley”, she said. “Run. Now.” She climbed up on the rock and drew her bow. “I’ll hold them off until you get clear.”
Bala scrambled to his feet in a panic. He started to move for the horses, and then stopped. Looking back he saw Mercedi hunting for a target. Then, there was a blur through the air and a broad spear tore through her throat. Bala screamed as her body was flung to the ground, blood gushing from her neck. He hesitated again, recalling a healing spell and estimating the power to repair such a catastrophic wound. Then he felt the sword at his side buzz magically. She was dead. Her Soul had departed and had been collected by the sword.
Belatedly he turned and ran. He had only just cleared the camp when a figure leaped down from side of the gully ahead of him. He pulled up short and backed away as it hissed at him.
A scuffle broke out in the camp and he heard the horses scream. Turning he saw several more figures tearing at the horses and fighting over Mercedi’s body. One, however, was not. It strode directly towards him. It leaped the gully edge and landed, cat-like, just next to him. Then it smiled broadly and raised its spear for the strike.
But Bala was no longer there.
Bala collapsed on the ground on top of the ridge, and tried to get his hyperventilating under control. Flashes of light sparkled on the periphery of his vision, threatening to spiral inwards and remove consciousness from him. He struggled and heaved, drawing a deep breath, and then another. His hand was in pain and he had enough presence of mind now to look at it in confusion. There were the remains of the short range teleport spell crystal he had crushed to escape. His grip had ground them into his hand.
He rolled over onto his belly and shook the remains from his hand. His body was shaking and he still felt very jittery, but his training was coming back. Closing his eyes helped his concentration. He put a few brief words together. The location, the encounter, and that Mercedi was down. Magic was summoned up from within him, and he spoke the words to a minor elemental, and sent it back towards the 32nd army’s camp.
That done he sighed, and sagged. His hand went to the sword at his side and he summoned enough energy to verify that Mercedi’s soul was safely stored in the arcane jar that was part of his standard issue sword. With effort, he could divert the energy of his internal reservoir into the sword and reconstitute her body. It was made for that. But he was not cleared for access to the strategic mana reserve and it would take all of his power. He felt so out of his depth, though, that the idea was comforting.
Instead, he just summoned a little bit and made contact with Mercedi’s soul. “Are you OK?” he asked, feeling foolish.
“Other than being dead, yes”, he felt Mercedi reply in his mind. “Didn’t see that coming. Did you get away?”
“I’m away, but not by far. I’ve reported in, but I’m not sure I have the skills to get away”, Bala said. “I might just have enough power to resurrect you. You’re much better at this than me.”
“It’s harder for two people to sneak than for one”, said Mercedi. “How many are there.”
“I saw about twenty on the scan”, said Bala, hope draining from his thoughts.
“Your scan will help you evade”, said Mercedi calmly. “That’s a better use of your energy than bringing me back.”
“The horses are gone”, cried Bala. “I don’t know this land. There is no hope to get away!”
“No”, said Mercedi, “there probably isn’t. But it doesn’t matter.” She paused while Bala’s confused thoughts raged. “You’ve reported in. They know, and they will come. Romitu accepts no casualties. Worst case, you end up in here with me until they haul us out.”
“Oh”, said Bala, not much calmer. “Great.”
“Baladakhr”, said Mercedi. “This is no longer about survival, it is about surveillance.” He took another deep breath. “We need to find out what we can, and we need to be ready to report it back.”
Bala lifted his head. “Fine. You are right.” He worked a little more magic. “I’ve slaved my senses to yours. You’ll see everything I do now. Just in case… something happens to stop me reporting.” He dropped the link to Mercedi’s soul.
With grim determination he crawled forward to the edge of the ridge.
Below he could see where their camp had been. The creatures had eviscerated the horses and Mercedi’s remains. One or two had run off and some others were fighting over what he assumed were choice pieces. The big one he had evaded earlier returned, and started knocking them into order.
Bala called up a simple pattern and enhanced his sight. The world rushed past him as his perception focused on the group. Their leader was large, but not inhumanly so. It was just their poise and bearing that seemed so alien. Their skin was dirty and grey, for the most part, and they looked emaciated. Several had open wounds that didn’t bleed or seem to impair them.
Their equipment was unlike anything Bala had seen before. They wore crude armor made of leather and bone. Their weapons as well, seemed to be of either bone or stone. A few crude daggers, but mostly short spears. Many had cupped sticks, made of skulls and femurs, which they appeared to use to throw the spears.
After a short argument, a few more were sent scurrying away with some of the remains. The rest, about twelve, stood still for a while, and then looked straight at Bala. The big one smiled broadly and pointed his spear at him.
“Oh, boy”, sad Bala, skittering back over the edge. “I don’t know how they are doing it, but it looks like they can scan too!”
Bala ran up the slope. Once past the top, he jumped up and began to pelt down the side of the ridge. The ravine was steep, but he threw all caution to the wind and just ran headlong down as fast as he could.
When the fall inevitably came, he was ready for it. A resilient magical shield surrounded him and he bounced the last few drops to the bottom. It dissipated and he crawled into the shadow of a cleft. He wheezed until he caught his breath and then did another scanning spell.
There were fewer motes in his hand this time. He watched as they surmounted the ridge and then paused again. Almost immediately they set out again, towards his new location. Albeit, at less of a reckless pace. “Definitely scanning”, he muttered.
He pulled himself up to his feet, and then set off downslope at a trot. He wished for his canteen, abandoned at the camp, as the sun angled down into the valley. He could summon water, but he didn’t judge his need to be enough right now. A better use for the magic was to add a few patterns to his scanning spell. It would be a lucky thing if there just happened to be an abandoned lead mine around here. That might spoil their scanning, if it was magic based at all. Unfortunately, nothing like that turned up, so he just went for speed.
As the terrain levelled out, his rush slowed. The ground was better so he didn’t have to shield against catastrophic falls. And it took too much energy to just deal with uneven ground. He was also getting tired.
From the occasional scan, he could see his pursuit was speeding up. They were faster on this ground, and they didn’t seem to tire. If nothing changed, they would catch up with him easily enough. If that was inevitable, it was time to start testing their limits.
He picked a point where the ravine bent slightly and a rock fall gave him immediate cover. He made a quick visual simulacrum of himself, prone on the ground. And then a trigger spell tied to a directed elemental summoning. Finally, he crushed his last short range teleport crystal and transported to a vantage point ahead.
Once the disorientation passed, he shrunk back into a cleft on the edge. He was tapping into his personal reserve a lot, but Mercedi’s words rang in his ears. This was about finding out information. He enhanced his sight again, as well as his hearing.
His pursuers raced around the rock fall and spun to a stop when they saw the body. “Hwy sy hit?” asked the closest.
The leader looked at the body. “Ic nyss ne connan.” His gazed moved up the ravine to exactly where Bala was hiding. “Hit sy ne hine.”
Bala swallowed heavily. He knew it was not possible to feel his gaze, but he felt completely exposed, despite his shadow and distance. Their language was unrecognizable to him. And, yet, it wasn’t as completely different as those from the Underground. He sighed, a pulled up more mana. New students used translation spells at the Academy. He had when he started. They were pretty simple, but the results could vary. They did not translate the words spoken, per se. Instead it was a simple reading of the target’s Will, that was then transposed onto the listener’s Will. So in a way you symbiotically felt what the other person meant, no matter what the words. Such transparent honesty caused no end of embarrassment in school.
He loosed the spell and felt a forceful connection with the Will of these people. It was much stronger than that of a normal person. Bala figured that if you could survive for millennia as one of the Forsaken, then it stood to reason.
“Do we ignore it?” asked the one who had been first around the bend.
“No”, said their leader. “We do not pursue for sport, or for bone and sinew. We pursue for knowledge.” Bala considered the irony that they, too, were using this as reconnaissance. “Touch it. Discover what manner of creature it is.”
The first hissed. The others fanned out warily. “Why me? Why should I?”
“Because I, Arnhvatr, command it”, said the leader. “And I grant to you the full corpse, should that be its nature.”
He didn’t seem too happy about that, but moved forward reluctantly anyway. He gave a slight kick to the body.
The visual simulacrum vanished the moment it was touched. The trigger spell went off, and with a bright flare, a small portal was opened to the realm of elemental fire. Residual directors guided the eruption into a focused path, which caught him in the left shoulder as he twisted away. Flame leaped over that side of his body and face and he howled, spinning and dropping to the ground.
The others gave way and shrank behind nearby rocks. The leader looked up to Bala’s position, and then back at the man.
The elemental fire, unnatural to this plane, faded quickly. But not before burning away the upper quarter of the man’s body. To Bala’s amazement, it didn’t stop him. His cussing and swearing, projected by his Will, continued through his mangled head. Bala almost retched as he saw a ghostly arm and shoulder emerge from where the body had been carbonized.
“Curse you”, swore the victim. “Is this your promised bounty?” He picked up dirt with his ghostly arm and threw it at Arnhvatr. Bala swallowed heavily. An arm substantial enough to throw dirt could hold a weapon.
“I am sorry for your bad luck”, said Arnhvatr. “The new moon is not far off. You do not have to bear it for too long. Let us be about the hunt again. That’s one less trick we’ll fall for.”
Still grumbling and complaining, the maimed one got up. They all set off at a brisk pace down the ravine.
Bala jumped from his position and tried to keep his lead. But he knew at this point that he would not get away. All he could do is slow things down. And learn.
So he spent a bit of power here, putting another visual feint over a crevasse. And some more, causing some rocks to explode. He left a noose of animated vegetation. And charmed a viper into having a very foul temper.
Some they fell for, some they didn’t. But nothing stopped them gaining upon him. Bowing to the inevitable, he began to select a place for a last stand. There was a box canyon he thought he could bring down the walls of. There was a cave where they could only come at him one at a time. But he passed these and just slowly dropped his pace, preparing one last spell.
They caught up to him warily. First they paced him for a while, watching what he did, and testing his limits. Then they moved out to either side. That, too, they maintained for a while. Then, with a signal from the leader the two flankers raced ahead, and the rest closed in. They surrounded him with spears and he came to a halt loosely holding his sword.
“He does not seem much of a warrior”, said one, looking at him skeptically.
“And, yet, he has kept us running most of the day and inflicted no small damage”, said Arnhvatr. “I salute you, unknown warrior. You have brought sweat to my brow that has been long absent.”
“I Baladahkr Vicusable, Corporal in the magical division of the 32nd army of Romitu, salute you as well, Chief Arnhvatr”, Bala replied, and was rewarded to see the whole group do a double take.
A smile spread across Arnhvatr’s face. “It pleases me that you are not, yet, out of surprises. Very good for a mere Khoporal of an army.” Bala made a formal bow. “I have fought more people then you have ever met. Yet you present a mystery to me.”
“How so?” asked Bala.
“I am a judge of warriors. And I judge you no warrior”, said Arnhvatr. Bala’s look darkened but the leader held up his hand. “I do not say you have not caused us more difficulty than I would have imagined. But you do not have the soul of a fighter.” Arnhvatr drew his eyebrows together. “The heart that beats within you is too craven to match this bold last gesture of defiance. You are the type to fear death greatly, and though it lies before you now, you do not have that fear. I would worry of some last hell fire you have bent to unleash upon us, but I don’t sense that is the case.”
“It is simple”, said Bala. “I fight with the strength of Romitu. We have been to hell and back. Even the gods fall before us.”
“That would explain a lot”, said Arnhvatr. “I hope you left some.”
“None of consequence”, said Bala.
Arnhvatr’s face darkened. “That would be unfortunate. Their blood price is ours, not yours. If you have taken that from us, then we must take it from you.”
The sword shifted in Bala’s hand. He gripped it tighter. “If you treasure your existence, you will return to where you came from. We will not tolerate your threats.”
Arnhvatr threw his head back and laughed. “And what would you do? Kill us?” He paced around Bala. “We are The Forsaken. We cannot die. That would sully the gods blessed grounds. We cannot live. That would be too much of an embarrassment them. We exist. There is nothing you can do to threaten our existence.”
But his sneer turned to a smile as he came fully around him. “But we are no longer bound! The powers that held us in place have vanished. The hounds are off the leash. I am just one of the four powers, and my clan alone is enough for twenty two of your armies. Whatever gods you killed may yet have the last laugh.”
Arnhvatr raised his spear. “We have learned enough. Seems a good fight awaits us. That is all I need to know.” He bowed perfunctorily. “In honor of a well-run chase, I offer you the honor of fighting me personally.”
Bala shook his head. “I, as you said, am no warrior. That is no more an honorable offer than a gambler’s loaded dice.”
“Suit yourself”, said Arnhvatr. He gestured to one of his troops. A spear was cast with super human force and it smashed through Bala’s breastbone. He collapsed to the ground, the sword clattering on the rocks.
Arnhvatr snorted. “No final gesture?” He bent forward and picked up the sword. “It’s been a long time since I handled fine steel.” Then he cried out as the sword began to glow brightly. Bala’s last spell had charged the sword with the last ergs of his internal reservoir. A simple location spell was targeted on the standard of the 32nd army, and the remaining mana translated into an impetus on its motion. The sword shot into the air and up over the horizon before the faces of the startled warriors.
An unearthly triple squawk shattered the quiet as the door creaked open. Coral dropped to a crouch and stopped on the threshold, reaching halfway towards the sword that wasn’t there. The creature’s three heads shook and vibrated, and its limbs clutched and scrabbled briefly before it receded into wary stillness once again.
“I knew that was going to happen”, said Coral, shaking his finger at it. “And, still, it gets me every time.”
He straightened up and moved into the shop. The door closed behind him of its own accord. The shop was cluttered to the point of overflowing. Shelves were stacked with all manner of mysterious fetishes, totems, abstract artwork, and disturbing kinetic sculptures. There were no straight lines anywhere as the rows receded in random twisting paths into the walls of the hollowed out space of the underground shop.
Coral pivoted, searching carefully around him. His eyes paused briefly on a life sized carved ironwood statue of some Underground creature he didn’t recognize, moved on to an upright ornate stone box with a foreboding eye slit, and finally settled on a stuffed hassock, made of some iridescent leather. Sitting on it, very still, was an old Orcish woman, wrapped in a shawl made of strips of the same leather. Coral stood upright and then bowed deeply. “My lady, Roxanne”, he said. “You are terrifying as always.”
The old woman smiled graciously, and nodded her head. “If I really wanted to terrify you I would refill the hydrangium spritzer the greeter originally came with.”
Coral held up both hands. “I hope to never get on your bad side!”
“It is usually bad form to drive one’s customers insane, though”, she said in disappointment. “And there are few alchemists left who can grind hydrangium and mix it into a soluble liquid.”
“But it is good form to scare them half witless?” asked Coral.
“Half witless, yes”, said Roxanne. “I don’t want to waste my time on those who would balk at my wares.” She added after a pause, “Or my prices.”
Coral laughed. “I have been to hell and back for my Queen. I’ve conspired to kill the gods for my patron. That has prepared me well enough to know better than to come into your shop without a purchase in mind!”
Roxanne drew herself up to her full height. “First of all, your demons and gods are the same order of being. The distinction is semantic. Secondly, as your histories have told you, they are both derived from your own race, and so one should not claim a great victory to have triumphed over them. There are things in this shop older than your species and representative of powers far greater than the greatest of your gods.”
Coral’s face became serious. “Yes”, he said, simply. “I am very aware of exactly how correct you are.” He took a deep breath. “And that is why I am here.”
The orc woman looked at him appraisingly. “You aim higher?”
“My patron does”, said Coral.
“Yet, according to her own account, that didn’t go so well last time she and her friends faced off against those of a more ancient order. Mmmm?” asked Roxanne.
Coral shrugged. “We're not 100% sure that was related to the first cataclysm. But, in any event, I figured if her course is set, it might be worth doing some better research this time.”
“And that is why you are here?” asked Roxanne.
“Yes”, said Coral. “To buy my patron some reading material.” He smiled and added. “The more terrifying the better.”
“That will be in the back”, said Roxanne. She held her hand out to Coral who helped her, gingerly, to her feet. “All this is for the usual riff raff who come in here”, said Roxanne, waving dismissively at the stacked outré items. She moved slowly and stiffly deeper into the maze of rows.
The deeper recesses of the shop were even more dimly lit. And the light there came either from very unusual sources, or were in things only barely recognizable as lamps. Coral’s face ranged from looking ill to contorted as he moved between some purple phosphorescent glow and disturbing patterns casted by a pierced metal lightshade.
Roxanne stopped and surveyed the wares in this particular dead end. “How familiar is your patron with history?”
“To anyone else, I would say well versed, as she’s lived through most of it”, said Coral with a smile. “But to you, I think three thousand years barely scrapes the surface.” Roxanne smiled and acknowledged this with a nod of her head. Coral continued, “Let’s say she has a certain working knowledge of a few of these ancient beings, but only from observation and… interaction. Not study.”
Roxanne shook her head. “Context. How can one expect to effect any change without understanding the appropriate context.” She traced her fingers over a few volumes on the shelf. “We should probably start with Wiffuluffaraff’s Concise History of Exile. What languages is she conversant in?”
“I… Uh..” stammered Coral. “I really don’t know. I’d expect she would probably use some sort of magic to read them.”
Roxanne snorted. “Let’s go for Schistgazer’s translation. It isn’t complete, but it is recent enough her magic might be able to find some corners to interpret.” She handed him a slim leather bound volume. Coral opened the cover and looked at the first page, which had spidery traceries on almost translucent paper.
She moved to another shelf and pulled down a thicker book. “She should start to learn Shiashem”, said Roxanne, “The old fashioned way”, she added warningly. “All the content I think she would be really interested in is written in that.”
“Shiashem”, repeated Coral. “Is that a language, a people, or… what?”
“Of those choices, a ‘what’ is probably closest.” Roxanne opened the cover and turned the first few pages. There was a full page engraving there. She held it up for him to view.
The pictures was at first dark and indistinct. There were stippled patterns there, but they were hard to work out. After staring at it for a few moments, the patterns of light and darkness could be seen to be tracing out contours, forming shapes and surfaces. Scale fluctuated as parts seemed to be recognizable as intricate patterns and other parts seemed landscapes. As the eye followed it and drew out its form, the shadow of familiar fell away it became clear that they were all part of one object that resembled nothing else. The surface was convoluted and contorted with some sort of musculature that didn’t conform to any sort of skeletal structure. There were textures that could be orifices or eyes but nothing that quite seemed to be a limb. The overall feeling was that of seeing something washed up on the seashore after a heavy storm; a creature, or part of one, totally out of its element.
“Yes”, said Coral, with a dry mouth. “That would be suitably terrifying.”
Roxanne closed the book and weighed it. “This is a good introduction. There are three classical primers that I’ve had copied into a single volume to which I’ve added an excellent forward, if I do say so myself, giving the provenance of the included texts. I’ve also added an appendix of several inscriptions that can be translated as an exercise.”
Coral took a deep breath and accepted the book. “Have you… actually met any of these… whats?”
Roxanne shook her head. “There is a great deal of debate about if they are currently extinct or not. Sightings are difficult to confirm and inscriptions are very common since just about everyone uses their scripts for ritualistic purposes. And, since they were exiled to this world, there’s always the chance that more could arrive even if they were extinct at any given point. To the question is mostly moot.”
“I got the impression from my patron that these ancient beings came in one’s, not whole races of them”, said Coral.
Roxanne nodded. “Yes. There is also debate as to whether the Shiashem should be classed as the same order of being as the other ancients. Some feel they were their servants, or parasites, like many of the Underground races, and others feel they came to this world originally as a single entity, but have deconstituted since then.”
“Do all the ancient beings use this writing? Is that why all the ‘interesting’ material is in it?” asked Coral.
“No. The Shiashem are unique in that they have actually written about themselves. None other from that order have felt the need to share their misery with others other than through violence. They were the first exiled to this world. And so their language has influenced all subsequent servitor races that had any desire to communicate. And it is some of those who have written about the other ancient ones.”
“Is there, like, an Underground University, with a library of all of this? Maybe I should buy her membership” said Coral.
“Ah”, said Roxanne. “Let me not mislead you. There are only a very few collectors, like myself. We might meet one another once a lifetime. Otherwise we barter and trade our goods through the Underground networks. I do not know my fellows as individuals. They may be institutions, or cults. They probably don’t distinguish between me and my mother, and won’t when it comes time for Penelope to take over. We are each a source of information. It is through our trading, and occasional writing, that we exchange opinions and references. It is a conversation that takes place over centuries.”
Coral nodded. “That’s quite a different scope. Up here we’ve gone from hocus-pocus magic to this new, refined magic, the collapse of the demons and death of the gods in a fraction of my lifetime.”
“My preference would be to wait a hundred years or so and see how it turns out, but my lifespan probably isn’t up to it.” She rubbed an arthritic shoulder for emphasis.
“Well”, said Coral. “Unless we end up defeating Death itself, I might have the next best thing.” From a bag slung over his shoulder he pulled out a large volume. The cover was of finely worked leather, with silver highlights woven into the skin itself, tracing out a pattern of leaves. A large brass clap held it shut with a geometrical pattern combination lock.
Coral placed it on the table and keyed it open. The pages were of vellum, but split so thin to allow for hundreds in the folio. But they were dense enough that light did not shine through them or for the ink to stain both sides. The pages were covered in a flowing cursive script, with a myriad of diacritical marks and colorful highlights. At points there were detailed diagrams, landscapes and portraiture of an almost completely realistic nature.
Roxanne’s hands went to the pages right away. She turned them, feeling the texture of it on her fingertips. She bent her eyes close to see the strokes of the pen on it, and the nature of the ink used. She moved a light of a less esoteric color closer to see the true hues of the pictures. “It is beautiful”, she said. “What is it?”
“It is written by Lady Gwendolyn, my patron”, said Coral. “It is a diary of her observations of the world, from the cataclysm to the fall of the first Romitu empire. About three thousand years of surface history.”
“I see”, said Roxanne. “She has had a unique vantage point.”
Coral gave a sideways smile. “Don’t think I didn’t come shopping without considering what I would pay with!”
Roxanne smiled and gave him a bow, then chuckled. “I was looking forward to some serious haggling.” She indicated the book with a wave. “I cannot possibly insult this effort by finding anything insufficient with it.”
“Excellent!” said Coral. “My only problem is if my patron develops a taste for this stuff and wants more. I don’t know how to top this!”
Roxanne smiled and patted his arm. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
The skies above the city of Romitu were covered in small puffy clouds. They moved at a leisurely pace in from the sea, which was just visible in the distance. They frequently obscured the sun, but just as frequently let it through unhindered onto the red tiled roofs of the sprawling city below.
When shining, it glinted from the gilded guardians perched along the battlements of the high city, where the royal palaces and temples were. These stoic statues were first erected several centuries past to show the might of Romitu. Not so much to its enemies, as its major expansions had ended at that point. But to reinforce an internal message several years after persistent summer riots precipitated the controversial stationing of the first army within the city walls.
The guardians, along with many other prominent features, had been heavily damaged in the war between the Empire and their gods. However, with the dramatic slaughter of all of the major gods of all nations, a new relationship had been established. The Empire was somewhat aghast at the devastation unleashed and the surviving gods were pragmatic enough to embrace the détente offered. As a symbol of a new era of cooperation, all damage to structures both religious and mundane, was meticulously restored with mana from the gods powering spells of the army’s mages. And, so, the guardians looked down upon the city with renewed luster.
The first army of Romitu was long disbanded, but its barracks still straddled the one long staircase from the city to the palace mount. They were populated by the high city guard which was, technically, a division of the city guard and not the army. At the base of the stair was an open square, secured for marshaling the official traffic up and down to the high city.
The clouds above chose a specific moment to part. Or so it seemed, as golden sunlight filled a corner of the square. For that instant, everything was brighter, more luminous, and almost glowed from within. When it passed, not all faded, for a woman stood there. She was tall; very tall. With long, unbound golden hair and striking elven features. Her shimmering dress appeared mostly composed of highlights and it was hard to tell where her hair ended and the dress began. Her bearing was so commanding that it would have been hard not to notice her, but none seemed to remember her standing there before, or approaching.
One guard, however, strode from his position at the foot of the stairs and bowed before her. “My Lady Gwendolyn”, said Coral. “Welcome to Romitu.”
“Thank you, my knight”, said Gwendolyn, a smile playing across her lips.
“I greet you as your liege, but also as the Queen’s champion”, said Coral. “Our security insists on an armed escort for all visitors to the Queen, no matter how distinguished”, said Coral, almost apologetically. “Since I can do double duty as both your guard and your minder, I volunteered for the duty.”
“A very diplomatic solution”, said Gwendolyn.
“I work very hard to keep my separate oaths of service from conflicting”, said Coral.
“The effort is appreciated”, said Gwendolyn. “I return the favor by seeking not to ask anything of you that may be conflicting. My discourse with the Queen touches on that.”
“Then let us ascend!” said Coral. He led the way to the stairs.
It was a long climb, and there were many who availed of the frequent carts traveling up and down its length. But Coral sensed that Gwendolyn would rather walk herself than to take such a mundane conveyance. He had once fenced with her, using a bewildering variety of weapons, for several hours straight. She had never once lost her breath, and he had been wrecked. He had no doubt of her physical stamina.
She did pause, however, a few times, to look out over the city. The view was tremendous. From the lower turn you could see the great temples and public buildings of the forum in full detail. Each cornice and ornament glinting with new repair, just like the guardians. From the second turning, the city began to spread out beneath you. The markets and docks on the river were a bustle of people and a riot of colors. At the last turning before the gates of the high city all could be seen, to the start of the fields beyond the edges. The great, crowded, smoky mass that was the largest city in the world.
“It seems good”, she said, after pausing a long time at the last turning, “to see the city growing once again.” The thought seemed incomplete, so Coral paused, waiting to see where her thoughts would go.
After a time, she continued. “Ever since Iowerth gathered some of the cataclysm survivors at the original ford on this river, Romitu has only grown.” She looked over the sequence of town walls, each overgrown like tree rings. “It has been sacked or burned once or twice. But that only did superficial damage. The city survived, thrived, and multiplied.” She shook her head. “It’s almost like a superstition, but I’ve always had the feeling that as it goes with Romitu, it goes with this world. If it can thrive, then the world must be thriving. And, should it ever decline… I would seriously worry for the future of our world.”
There seemed to be a melancholy tone to her voice. More than the positive sentiment its contents conveyed. After a proper amount of time had passed, Coral asked “Do you miss Londra?”
Gwendolyn turned and looked at him. Her eyes were shining. “Yes”, she said quietly. “Yes I do.” Her gaze studied him, impressed at his insight. “I knew it for a fraction of the time that I have known Romitu. But it was my city, and my world. And when one perished, so did the other.”
“I wish I could have seen it”, said Coral. “In your writings, it sounds amazing.”
She tilted her head and raised one eyebrow. “You may yet, my knight”, she said mysteriously. “You may yet.”
Coral knew better than to ask. So he led her on. They left the last turning and proceeded through the upper gate. The Queen’s Champion was well known and the checks were perfunctory. Beyond it their view was dominated by the great temples and mausoleums of the high city. They were built to be seen by the city, and towered over the two of them, almost like valley sides, as they proceeded inward. Once past the outer ring a bit more sunlight came in. Small gardens and fountains appeared alongside the ceremonial pathways. Most mundane delivery traffic had already taken to the faster underground routes. They walked on in unusual quiet and solitude.
“I have not had a chance, yet, to properly thank you for the books you sent”, said Gwendolyn.
“There is no need, my liege”, said Coral. “I’m just happy if I succeeded in getting you something you didn’t already have!”
“I am almost embarrassed at my lack of knowledge of an area that I have allegedly been obsessing over for millennia”, she said lightly.
“The Grey Elves and their agenda has tended to overshadow all our thinking”, said Coral. “They’re the ones that allegedly created us and have predicted our doom.”
“True”, said Gwendolyn. “But this literature refers to all these ancient beings as exiles from somewhere else. Can it be that these Grey Elves are just another group of exiles that only seem more fitting to us because we were created in their image?”
Coral considered for a while. “So we’re just as creepy to, say, these Shiashem as they are to us?” He shuddered.
“It shall take me some time to make some headway in that second book”, said Gwendolyn. “I’ve done little more than read the preface and look through the illustrations.”
Coral shook his head. “I’ve been trying to forget those illustrations ever since I saw them.”
Gwendolyn put her hand lightly on his arm. “Then is it not comforting to think that if you ever confront one face to face that it might be as… creeped out?”
Coral laughed and looked at her askance. “Give me time to get used to it”, said Coral. “I’ll get there. If Moss can face off against one, I can too.”
“Moss’s encounter was far removed from facing off. But it was also with something far greater. I hope to get much closer to something as great. Clearly we have a lot to learn. You have shown me that we have not yet availed of all the resources I might”, said Gwendolyn. “You’ll get your time to get used to it.”
They had come to the edge of a wide courtyard. There were more gardens and statuary, but it mostly served to frame this entrance to the palace proper. It was one of many palaces in the high city. But the others that had not already fallen out of use were shuttered when Jesca took the throne. She did not consider her position to warrant the ostentatious display that previous monarchs of the first empire or the bureaucratic oligarchy of the interregnum demanded. She had even asked for estimates of the cost of magically moving them to the city itself and turning them into museums.
Those retained for use was still quite grand. Columns and porticos rose up in a gleaming edifice with the icon of Romitu displayed from fluttering banners and pennants. Foot traffic picked up as the various functions of imperial organization were also centered here.
Guards stood at attention on the stairway and saluted Coral as he passed. Phyllis, the head of the household guard, was waiting and indicated that the Queen would meet with Gwendolyn in the reception room overlooking the western balcony.
“Shall I wait outside?” asked Coral as they followed Phyllis towards the reception room.
“Would you rather?” asked Gwendolyn.
“Well”, said Coral hesitantly. “I rather suspect from the hints you have dropped that some part of this discussion will concern me.” Gwendolyn smiled in a non-committal way. “Although I’m dreadfully curious, to keep my own clarity of purpose, I think not being privy to the arguments, opinions and potential conflicts between my two lieges might help me retain my sanity.”
“I don’t think it will be anything particularly confrontational”, said Gwendolyn. “And I don’t think I would have any compulsion against speaking freely in your presence. But I think your Queen might feel otherwise.”
“That she might”, said Coral. “But, of course, she would also not feel compelled to ask me not to be present either.” He sighed deeply. “This means the most chivalrous thing to do would be to not put her in that position.” He nodded. “I shall wait outside.”
Gwendolyn smiled affectionately. “Diplomacy is just war with different weapons”, she said.
“Lady Gwendolyn, Mage of Mount Gerakovouni, is here”, announced Phyllis.
The western reception room was Jesca’s favorite. The appointments were relatively modest, with comfortable furniture and an absence of massive gilded busts of previous potentates. The best feature was a window and balcony along the western wall that looked down from the high city over a thin stretch of town and then the fields stretching to the sea. There was often a breeze carrying a faint salt smell and at sunset, the view was glorious.
Jesca rose from the chair she had been sitting in and approached to greet Gwendolyn. She wore a short tunic and breeches, in a dull red. They were well tailored and sturdy, no excessive trim or pleats. Her jewelry was similarly modest, consisting of only a ceremonial sword at her side and a red-gold band holding back her hair.
“Greetings, Lady Gwendolyn”, she said, making a slight bow. Technically the monarch of Romitu bowed to no one. But this was in private, and Gwendolyn was rather a special case. Jesca did not bow out of subservience, but out of respect. “Both Romitu and I enjoy your friendship and advice. I am honored that you have taken the time to visit. I know you do so, so rarely.”
“Thank you, Jesca, Queen of Romitu, student of Scioni”, replied Gwendolyn. Her returning nod was even slighter. But that was gesture enough, as she never bowed to anyone. “It does me good to get out.”
“Let us enjoy the balcony”, said Jesca. “The view is not as splendid as Coral says it is from Mount Gerakovouni, but the wind is fresh.”
Gwendolyn followed her and stood for a time, looking out over the world and feeling the wind in her face.
Jesca did not hurry the moment. It just didn’t seem appropriate with someone three thousand years old. Although Queen of Romitu, mightiest nation in the world, Jesca had nothing but humility before this woman, who had turned her back on godhood. Who had loaned them the power that revitalized the Ævatar and Bianca used it to defeat the whole Romitu pantheon in minutes. Jesca would have felt fine if it had stopped there. But the gods didn’t take such umbrage well, and every single other pantheon rallied against the Ævatar. Even faster than the Romitu god’s demise, they defeated and drained the Ævatar of all the power Gwendolyn had given it. Her old comrades, unified after millennia, defeated her.
Then something happened. Bianca had sacrificed her soul and the Ævatar woke up. Their mages were still uncertain where it got the power from, but it threw the gods around like mewling kittens. And when they fled after it became apparent they couldn’t defeat it, the energized construct pursued them. To the ends of the earth and beyond, based on the reports that came in. And then, whatever had woken it up, ceased. The Ævatar just stopped. It hadn’t moved since.
Jesca looked up at Gwendolyn’s face. Those eyes had seen so much. She had known the gods when they were mortal. She had seen them rise to godhood, rule their fiefdoms, and take their oath of forgetfulness so that all their wars would be petty. And now she had seen them die.
“I am sorry for your loss”, said Jesca spontaneously. Gwendolyn turned from the view and looked at her. “The hundred and forty three were once your companions in arms, and friends. The only other creatures in the world that were at all like you. And now they are no more. Under my orders. I am sorry.”
Gwendolyn turned back to the view. “I thank you for your compassion. But do not be sorry. I may have remembered them, but they did not remember me. The companionship was one way, and false. I see that now. And many other things. This has cleared my mind and given me perspective to reassess my priorities. Upon reflection, there are things I think now are more important.” She turned back to Jesca. “So do not be sorry for me. I am grateful for what you have done.”
“I’m glad someone is”, said Jesca. She looked away and over the view. “I wonder what they will say in a hundred years of my choices. Of all I have dragged into this with me.”
“Those who follow you do so of their own volition” said Gwendolyn. “The burden is not yours alone.”
“No”, said Jesca. “Everyone was involved. Even, if my spymaster has his facts in order, some of the surviving gods colluded through inaction to precipitate this result. Just no one expected it to be so… drastic.”
“Were you not prepared for the eventuality of killing all the gods?” asked Gwendolyn.
“Yes”, said Jesca. “Eventually. If necessary. I rather hoped we could work something out.”
“You have”, said Gwendolyn. “With the gods that are left.” She gestured over the restored city. “Things seemed to have worked out pretty well.”
Jesca breathed a deep sigh. “Yes. That is how it seems. But I think that just frees us up for what is next. Promises were made, and promises must be kept.” She turned and faced Gwendolyn full on. “That is why you are here, is it not?”
Gwendolyn nodded her head in assent. “Yes, I am here to discuss our deal.”
“For your aid in fighting the gods, you wished our aid in fighting the ancient beings that the idealists of Londra sought to destroy”, said Jesca, her face grave. “That seems to have led to the first cataclysm. I have this feeling it may yet lead to the second one.”
“It may yet”, said Gwendolyn. “But we must do what drives us.” She paused, reached up, and stroked her chin. “I know you would hold yourself to your promise. But what I have actually come for is to discuss changing the terms of our agreement.”
“Changing them?” said Jesca warily. “But you have already delivered on your promise. You are right, I hold myself to my promise. What is there to change?”
Gwendolyn’s eyes became distant, looking past Jesca. “With my new found clarity of thought, I am considering my objectives a little more closely. The ancient beings wrought great woe upon those I held dear and my loyalty to them, even though they are millennia gone, burns strong within me. It is not a task I will give up. But I am considering postponing it.”
Jesca raised her eyebrows. “I have not known you to change your mind on such serious matters.”
“No”, said Gwendolyn, looking back to Jesca. “It is quite unlike me.” A faint smile hovered on her lips. “Your good Champion has brought it to my attention that I am not necessarily possessed of all the facts I could be, to be best prepared for such a fight.”
Jesca glanced back at the doorway to the room. “Did he now? I’ll have to have a word with him about second guessing those whom he serves.”
“Not at all”, said Gwendolyn. “That was not his intent. He sought to help, and in so doing, made me aware that I needed help.”
Jesca looked back to Gwendolyn, again surprised. “Changing your mind, and needing help? The foundations of my world are shattered!”
“There is more yet”, said Gwendolyn.
Jesca leaned back against the parapet and crossed her arms. “I don’t know if I can take any more revelations.”
“Ah”, said Gwendolyn. “It is more self-discovery than change. I am driven by my old loyalties. And yet the greatest of them has been before me, and I have not seen it. The destruction of these ancient malices is worthy but only serves the memory of my youth. It has only sunk in now that there is a task before me that serves my greatest oath. That to my Queen.”
“Your Queen?” said Jesca, her voice breaking. But Gwendolyn was not looking at her, but out to sea again. She swallowed heavily as she realized who she was talking about. “The Queen of Londra?”
Gwendolyn closed her eyes and quoted “I was patron to the Kings and Queens of Londra. Before the first cataclysm. Yet they aren’t quite gone. Poor Princess Kimberly waits in her tower.”
“That’s what the grey elf said. Rose”, said Jesca, hushed. “When she appeared to Bianca.”
Gwendolyn opened her eyes, and they were moist. “Princess Kimberly waits”, she repeated. “How could I have missed the import of that? How?” She turned to Jesca and the passion was brimming to her very eyes. “She waits. She is alive. The last scion of Londra is alive and waiting to be rescued.” She flung her hands up. “She’s been waiting for millennia and here I am, the last Knight of Londra, with my mind caught up in a pyrrhic battle against forces well beyond me! Some loyal subject I am.”
“Alive?” said Jesca. “But where, do you know where.”
Gwendolyn drew a breath deeply, and regained her composure. “I do not. But I have some ideas.”
“Is this what you want my help with instead?” asked Jesca.
Gwendolyn nodded. “It is. But I do not need your armies, your magic or your treasury.”
“I stand by my oath”, swore Jesca. “You have but to ask. How may I aid?”
“I need someone to go on a quest”, said Gwendolyn. “A champion.”
Jesca strode along the battlements of the high city. The parapet circled the entire edifice and was, nominally, for defense. Practically, the cliff face was defense enough, and there had been precious few winged assaults during its history. Jesca half suspected other reasons. For the monarch to be able to view the city under their protection. Or to get out of the stink of court. Or, as she did now, to burn of excess energy.
She was still worked up over her meeting with Gwendolyn. It wasn’t as bad as meeting a Grey Elf, but it was nearly as fraught with second guessing and strategic thinking. Only this time, Gwendolyn had seemed quite human. The import of what she had said was staggering, but so much was these days. No matter. Jesca had cast her dice. She had to mentally move on.
To her next meeting.
Jesca saw her a good distance away. Perched on the edge of the parapet on the most prominent tower. She was hard to miss, being so pale against the dark grey of the stone. Jesca remembered the day they had met as children. The army brats of the elite. She had refused to tell anyone her name. So Jesca had given her one, based on her pale, pale skin and hair.
“Hello Bianca”, said Jesca, as she approached.
Bianca took a deep breath, as if she had been holding it, and then turned away from the precipice. “Hello Jesca”, she said in a flat tone. Jesca was used to her expression being one of sullen irritation. She was fierce and passionate about what she wanted, and let no one or any social decorum get in the way. But when Jesca looked in her eyes now, they were as flat as her voice. The fire that had burned there was now ash. “How did it go with Gwendolyn?”
Jesca blew air through her lips. “Unexpectedly, of course.” She turned and sat against the parapet, side by side with Bianca. “Turns out some of what you reported from the Grey Elf might have been a personal message to her. Of course it might not have. Apparently there’s a magical Tower of Londra that’s proof against nearly everything. Could be some of the royal family escaped to it.”
Bianca furrowed her brow. “The bit about the princess?”
“Yes”, said Jesca. Bianca grunted.
Bianca had been fixated on the Ævatar project for so long. At many times she was the only one who saw value in it. Well, it made the difference. The gods were all dead. But Bianca paid a terrible price. She lost her soul. It was an intangible part of her being, but it also was the key to magic. She had been a mage most of her life. But now she couldn’t even create a wisp of light.
“Are you sure you don’t want to try another stint in the army?” asked Jesca. Bianca had served for six months in the shield wall when she came of age. Jesca remembered some officers discussing her, and being reluctantly approving.
Bianca shook her head. “I’m too willful to be a trooper, and I don’t have the patience to be an officer”, she said.
Jesca nodded. She could see that. “How about espionage? I’m sure Jack could use someone of your talents.”
Bianca snorted, a little fire returning to her eyes. “I’d kill him before I took any orders from him”, she said harshly. Like just about everyone else, Bianca hated the spymaster. There was still one copy of the Six Books of Magic at large. An enormous potential threat since the highly refined understanding of magic given therein was what enabled all the wonders of their empire. It had been Jack’s mistake that caused the breach. No one had forgiven him. Least of all himself. Which is why he was still the best person to try to track it down.
“I could always use another personal bodyguard”, said Jesca.
Bianca shook her head again, but without any harshness. “I’ve lost my perception”, she said. “I can’t act, I can only react.”
“Just because you don’t have soul doesn’t mean you aren’t a person”, said Jesca. “We all knew Lilly before she gained a soul…”
“Yes, yes”, said Bianca, cutting her off. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not talking metaphysics. I can’t anymore. It’s just… what I feel I am capable of and not capable of.”
“We’ll find something for you”, said Jesca. “You don’t have to…”
“I just can’t be near people”, said Bianca, forcefully. Jesca stopped pushing. Bianca’s hands were clasped tightly together. “I can’t be near people”, she said again, more quietly. “Everywhere I go. Everyone knows who I am. Everyone knows what I did.” She drew a few deep breaths. “Everyone’s been affected. Doesn’t matter if it is positive or not. Doesn’t matter if it’s all in my head. I feel it. From everyone. Everywhere. ‘There’s the one who killed all the gods.’ If they aren’t saying it, they’re thinking it. I just can’t bear to be around it.”
Bianca drew her arms tightly around herself and shuddered. Jesca let her be for a while, then, very tentatively, put her arm around her. A year ago that probably would have earned her a quick dagger in the ribs. But not now. Bianca relaxed slightly into her and her breathing grew more even. Jesca leaned her cheek very gently against her.
“I get that too”, Jesca said, voice barely above a whisper. “It’s easy to say that you didn’t do it, that it was all the Ævatar going out of control. But that’s not how you feel. It’s easy to say that I didn’t have anything to do with it. It wasn’t what I asked you to do. But I’m still the one that gave the order. I still bear the responsibility for what happened. Even if it’s all inside my head.”
They sat in silence for a while. Eventually Bianca straightened up, and Jesca withdrew her arm. “So you see that I must go”, said Bianca finally.
“I see that you feel you must go”, said Jesca. “I feel the same.”
“But you do not”, said Bianca.
“You’ve found a way to leave, yet still carry on your duty. So you can absent yourself, but still feel useful.” Jesca sighed deeply. “I haven’t.”
Bianca nodded curtly. Then she stood, and turned to look over the parapet again. “Will you say goodbye to Lilly for me?” she asked.
Jesca stood up and leaned beside her. Both of their gazes watched some raptors riding in the thermals above the city. “I will”, said Jesca. “She will insist you come and visit occasionally though. She’s already talking about a birthday party.”
Bianca snorted. “As our duties permit”, she said. “Although I’m not sure I’ll be good company.”
Jesca smiled. “That’s OK”, she said. “None of us really are.”
“Odd”, said Bianca. Jesca looked at her quizzically. “Odd that Lilly is turning out to be the most normal of the three of us.”
Jesca nodded. “I wouldn’t have put money on that. But I can’t deny it. Birthday parties are the furthest thing from my mind right now.”
“Did I slaughter the gods for nothing?” asked Bianca, trying to sound light. “Do you not have peace of mind enough to plan a party?”
Jesca lowered her head and grasped the pommel of her ceremonial sword. “No”, she said quietly. “That just cleared the decks for whatever is coming next.”
“And what’s that?” asked Bianca.
“I don’t know”, said Jesca. “I just get this feeling.”
“We both know there’s a lot that goes on just inside our heads”, said Bianca.
Jesca turned and looked at her straight. “Then why does the feeling go away when I’m not wearing this?” She placed her sword on the balustrade before them. The blade was bright, with the coat of arms of Romitu etched into it. The guard was more fanciful than functional, with colorful inlaid enamel. The handle was dark green leather which set off the large emerald glinting in the pommel.
Bianca swallowed heavily. “That’s the stone from the Ring of Kings?”
Jesca nodded. She reached out and touched a facet. “One of the older heirlooms of my office. And, apparently, one that actually has some functional value. It was allegedly made by the Hearth Mother and blessed by all the gods of Romitu.”
“Well”, said Bianca calmly. “At least you know it hasn’t ceased to function now that they’re all dead.”
Jesca pursed her lips, and then swept the sword back into its sheaf. “Whatever it is, it’s happening soon.” She shuddered. “Having second thoughts about going?”
“I’ll be more help to you freeing someone else up. You’ll have a good team of mages back in place of one who can’t do magic anymore”, said Bianca. “They’ll be glad to be back in your direct service.”
“I have many admirers, Bianca”, said Jesca slowly. “But I have few friends. I will miss you.”
“I have few friends too”, said Bianca. “And no admirers. I will miss you as well.”
They embraced one final time as a messenger approached.
Bianca took the municipal gate to Irontree after the long walk down from the high city. She still warranted a priority pass, but she didn’t use it this time. She waited in line with everyone else. She stood out. But, then, she always had. The known world was mostly defined by those that Romitu had once conquered. And there was an enclave of almost every one of those races somewhere in the city. Even the few they had not conquered still had those who chose to live in this, the largest of the world’s cities. But other than her mother, there was no one else of her coloration here at all.
Some was the idle curiosity of bored people in line. Others wondered if she represented a new people that they might trade with, since the bulk of people using the gates were merchants. But any guard who saw her knew her for who she was. Most nodded respectfully. Very few of the military had any qualms about her being the one that stepped into harm’s way when it came time to fight the gods.
Eventually someone noticed the familiarly they showed with her. Eventually someone asked. Eventually a guard explained. And then the buzz went up and down the line. Attitudes changed. Some shared the guard’s admiration. But there were also glares from others who fingered the impotent holy symbols of now dead gods. The space around her grew.
She almost gave up, and moved to the priority line. But then a young man approached. He had been standing with his mother. The two looked like well-to-do merchants by their clothes and bearing. They had no cargo chits with them, and were probably travelling to establish or seal some deal. Although little was made in Irontree, it was the first to trade with the Underground and still boasted quite a mixed trading hub.
As the man approached she raised her eyes and glared at him. She was good at it, and seldom did anyone bother her after a warning like that. He did stop, but he didn’t back down. The look in his eyes was not defiant, confrontational or even curious. It was expectant. He met her gaze and looked deep into her eyes. Then he gave a small nod, and smiled. “It is you”, he said quietly. “The look in your eyes is the same. I owe you my life. If I can ever be of service to you, let me know.” He then gave a tentative salute, and she remembered.
In her assault against Sky Father and Waterbearer, some fool of a boy in the rich section of town had decided to watch the adventure from his balcony. By the time the folly of his decision was clear he was too petrified to do anything. A blast of frozen water nearly killed him, but she had instinctively shielded him with the Ævatar. That shook him awake and he fled back inside, but not before giving the same hesitant salute.
“I will remember”, said Bianca, just as quietly. He rejoined his mother, whose neutral expression was betrayed by how tight she clenched his arm when he returned. But then the ready signal was given and the batch Bianca was with was hustled into position. They moved from painted square to painted square, and then through the gate itself in precisely kept time.
Once on the other side, everyone quickly dispersed. Her novelty was lost in the immediacy of reasons that people had chosen to come to Irontree for. Bianca quickly found herself alone walking through the streets she knew very well.
As she walked she wondered about the young man. Clearly he was an idiot for being outside in a magical war zone. But a perceptive idiot if he could remember her by stance and posture alone. The Ævatar didn’t have much facial expression. But she’d seen him twice now, and would not forget him. She would probably never need his favor, but if she did, she’d find out who he was.
Her mother didn’t maintain apartments in the Academy. She preferred a large building of her own. It was originally designated as housing for the native Troglodytes, but they preferred living in their densely packed apartments and the place had never been finished. It gave Goatha plenty of room for both small and large scale projects.
Bianca worked the complex lock which was part combination and part keyed. The magical elements had been removed when she lost her soul and could no longer cast spells. The doors closed silently behind her and she stood in the large, dimly lit space. Tables and apparatus lay about the volume. Some were large constructs in various states of construction. Most were attempts at finding ways to harvest the wild vortex energy of the outer waste. Most of the smaller tables were shrouded like a morgue of past projects that were no longer relevant or a priority. There was no sign of Goatha.
Bianca slowly sank into a crouch. She slipped the catch on her cloak and let it slip to the floor as she drew her knife. Her senses started to come to peak acuteness as her pulse quickened and her mind focused on the now. She took a few steps to one side and listened to what sound her street damp shoes were making, as she slid under a smaller table. She paused there less than a minute, before moving again. There was no target yet, but she didn’t want to become one. And the movement familiarized her with at least one part of the internal geography while she waited for her eyes to adjust and boots to dry.
When she felt she was ready, she sprinted across an open space hoping to draw something out. She was rewarded with the sound of something moving, proving there was more than just her paranoia in here. She dodged, dove, and tumbled into the lee of a large contraption. Freezing, she listened intently, trying to identify a direction for her pursuer. But she felt, rather than heard, the vibration of something landing on the mechanism she had come up against. Bianca mentally judged the height, waited just long enough for whoever was up there to decide they were unobserved and commit to a move. Then she leapt aside, spun, and struck where someone would be if they had been pouncing on her.
She was rewarded with a flurry of motion. Something, indeed, had taken her bait, and leapt for her. But it quickly worked out the ruse, and pivoted away before Bianca’s counterstrike could land.
Bianca was hard after it. The dim light showed little, but she sprinted at the vague shape she could see, and the two had a tight little dogfight of a chase as each tried to roll past, around, or under the other through the bars of the machine. Bianca had a sense of the immediate layout and altered her pursuit in an elaborate feint. Her pursuer took the bait and after a sudden reverse and backflip Bianca had steered them into a blind corner and she swung in for the kill.
However, as her blade struck true, her adversary dissolved and evaporated around her plunging blade. Bianca fought her surprise and instantly dropped her committed move. She had no idea what had just happened, but the first reaction was to assume the worst. She spun in place and leapt up, backwards, into the tight wedge she had just been driving her foe a moment before. Her tactic proved true as she saw her enemy reconstitute itself for what would have been a fatal strike into her back had she not evaded it. Its blade rang out against hers. It was the first time their weapons had touched. Bianca deflected it and leaped from her height to turn it into a counterstrike. But her foe, surprise lost, had withdrawn around the edge to regroup.
But Bianca knew now who she faced. Her own weapon was as familiar to her as one of her own limbs. And the sound it had made when blocking then was the sound of another that she had crossed blades with many times. The one who taught her most of what she knew about fighting. Her most skilled mentor. Her mother.
The fight lasted the better part of an hour. Bianca had naught but her blade while Goatha used her blade, her magic, and her knowledge of the layout of the area. She would ghost in, sometimes magically, other times just out of hiding, press Bianca closely, but as soon it was clear that she wasn’t going to overwhelm her entirely she would fade into the gloom again.
Bianca knew that by any sensible judgement she was completely outclassed and did haven’t a chance. But that sort of thinking could only get you killed so she did not embrace it. Instead, she tried her damndest to anticipate any possible move and to eel out of each ambush as it happened.
And she was having fun.
When there’s a knife at your throat you become very focused on the sharpness of the blade. It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday, missed opportunities, or poor life choices. Bianca was in a state of deep focus. She was hyper attuned to the present, and thus, had no time horizon beyond the now. It put all her problems and concerns at a distance. In a way, it was relaxing.
Twice more, in the fight, their blades clashed. Everything else was feint and maneuver. Each knew when they had been out maneuvered, and would withdraw from anything less than an idea position.
But, eventually, the lights came up. Bianca blinked in the brightness, pivoting for cover in case this was just the prelude to a changed circumstance. But as her eyes adjusted, and she skulked from shadow to shadow, she saw Goatha. She was sitting cross legged, on top of a shrouded table, knife sheathed, watching Bianca.
After a few more minutes, Bianca sheathed her own knife, and cautiously approached.
Goatha nodded. Bianca returned the nod. “I had my reservations”, said Goatha, “but you have improved.”
“Thank you mother”, said Bianca. “I’ve had little to distract me from training.”
“You have had much to distract you from training”, said Goatha. “You have had a lot on your mind. But I saw that fall away when you fought.”
“This is why I seek this path”, said Bianca.
“It is not a path that leads to an answer”, said Goatha. “It will relieve you, but for only so long as you walk it.”
“Nothing can change, until the world changes”, said Bianca. “And, if nothing else, this will buy time to change the world.”
Goatha nodded. “Then I understand your approach and motive. I withdraw my objections.” She hopped lithely down from the table and pulled the sheet off in one smooth gesture.
The table was as wide as it was broad, and made of one piece of stone. The top of it was covered in a heaped mass of translucent blue crystals. Beneath them could be seen the outline of a man. It was Moss, Goatha’s husband. He had been touched by the mind of an ancient being. Like ripples in a pond, that touch echoed across his mind and drove him stark raving mad. But when the ripples were countered, and the echoing actions of that ancient evil stilled, he was himself again.
Ever since it happened, Goatha had spent much of her time taking up station inside of his consciousness. She fought, metaphysically, the corruption and allowed her husband to conduct the research she felt strongly was needed to progress Romitu’s plans. When the need was greater for her specialties, she withdrew, and he was frozen in suspended animation under the blue ice.
“I am ready”, said Bianca. There wasn’t much else to do. She had said her goodbyes. She had readied herself mentally as best she could. Once before she had entered his mind when her Mother didn’t answer a summons to return. It hadn’t gone so well. But she was determined this time it would go better. She really didn’t have any alternatives.
Goatha nodded. She made a gesture over the table and the blue crystals started to sublimate. Within them Moss started to writhe, and once his mouth was free, to scream.
Bianca closed her eyes and drew a deep breath.
The madness descended on Moss. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew it was a transition, but the gibbering screaming tore it from his consciousness. Waves of colored nausea rushed over his skin and a stench like burnt lemons burnt his tongue. And behind it all he felt a presence. The same presence he had barely touched once, almost a decade ago, on a recovery mission gone wrong.
His job had once been with the Babiru Special Service. An office established by the first Romitu Empire, its duties were to investigate and prosecute magical crime, and suspect supernatural activities. In the fragmentation that permeated the interregnum, several countries maintained most of the civil service set up by Romitu. Proving, once again, that there is nothing more constant than bureaucracy.
Although by and large mundane, the agency was a threat to those who would wield magical power for personal gain. Consequently there were complicated internecine power plays amongst the bureaucrats running it and their influencers. It became clear to him and his partner, Goatha, after a time that they were being increasingly directed to seek out caches that were laid down during a specific era. All showed signs of wide ranging, but very specific damage. They started calling it The Cataclysm.
Most were about three millennia old, and many had already been looted. In one such cyst they had found and revived Scioni, a powerful general from the early Romitu empire, entombed there for hundreds of years.
Scioni’s power was not in his political contacts, long dead. His power was in his mind and understanding of politics. He moved from being a pawn to being one of the prime manipulators with an ease that commanded respect. It certainly commanded the respect of Moss and Goatha who quickly became his closest confederates.
Since someone thought there was something important about the relics of the cataclysmic era, Scioni felt it pertinent to pursue them as well. A picture of an age of high magic began to emerge. One that met its end quickly, and violently. Much later more clues fell into place, it was discovered that the cataclysmic damaged they had come to recognize so quickly, was the work of people trying to eliminate the source of weal and woe of that era: The Six Books of Magic.
But before then, a side expedition following clues found in a cyst had lead Moss, Goatha and other confederates of Scioni deep into the Underground. They ventured, unexpectedly, into the presence of an Ancient order of being. In covering their hasty retreat, Moss caught a wave of its antagonism. The merest reflection of its thoughts poisoned his intellect like a virus, and its echoes buried him in waves of insanity.
And so his life had been since. Coruscating light piercing his vision, pain wracking his muscles, he clung to the phantom textures willing it to end, trying to make his enemy appear tangible so he could defeat it once and for all. His hands clutched and he screamed at the face forming before him. If he could just choke the life out of it as it choked the thoughts from his brain.
His breath came in ragged gasps pushing the guttural howls from his throat. Sanity dimly approached as he realized his senses were starting to converge on a consistent world view. The face before him resolved into Goatha, his wife. He briefly spasmed, strangling her tighter, because she could not be there. She was either inside him, fighting the delusions, or he was on ice. So close, but never touching for nearly ten years.
But even as his grip tightened, he felt the pain in his hands. The synchronicity of cause and effect sobered him. That was what defined reality: when your actions had effect. Slowly he calmed down, and tried to will his fingers to release.
Goatha looked at him, and then started blinking. Moss drew his hands back, his fingers shaking. Goatha drew back, tilted her head, straining, and with a crack the spell hardening her skin released.
“Is…” began Moss hoarsely. “Is it really you?”
“Yes”, answered Goatha, “It is really me.”
He realized her arms had been holding him. He put his hands to them and squeezed her. “But, how?” He brought his breathing under control. “Am I cured?” he asked doubtfully. But, no, as he thought about it, he could hear the distant wailing that was always with him, even when Goatha was fighting for his sanity.
Goatha confirmed by shaking her head. “Another has taken my place.”
Moss rubbed his head. “Another?” He concentrated inwardly. When Goatha was in metaphysical residence in his skull, he had a sense of her. He was never really certain that he really was in contact with her, or that he just deluded himself into thinking so to make the separation more bearable. He mostly felt the Ancient presence. It was its absence, and how it was banished that he noted. Goatha’s countermoves were always ones of unbearable pressure, guiding it away and deflecting it into harmless recesses. Until it reformed from scratch in new areas. But now, the cadence had changed. The corruption was pushed back in quick, stabbing jabs that cut and cleaved. It reformed, but from smaller pieces, to be attacked again. He thought he recognized the style. “Bianca?” said Moss, in surprise.
Goatha nodded. “It was all she felt she could do after losing the ability to work magic.”
“But she could have…” started Moss. “Or, does it mean she actually cares about me?”
“She said it would free me up”, said Goatha.
Moss sighed and shook his head. He relaxed in her grip and put his head on her chest. “I guess that was too much to hope for.”
“Killing you would also have freed me up”, said Goatha with a slight smile. “That she chose this might indicate she cares a little bit.” She stroked his hair gently.
Moss laughed quietly. “That’s my daughter”, he said. Goatha stiffened slightly. It had always been taboo for both Goatha and Bianca to admit that Moss was her father. Even though it was obvious to all. Moss shook his head. “You guys and your freaky culture.”
“All strong cultures are tyrannical in some way”, said Goatha. “If they didn’t hammer down the nails that stuck out, they wouldn’t maintain their strong identity.”
“But why do you persist in identifying with a group you, yourself, admit are a bunch of barbarians on a miserable windswept island?” asked Moss.
“They are inconsequential”, said Goatha. “I am what I am. I choose to be who I am.”
“Do you really think I’m going to expose Bianca because you admit she’s my daughter?” asked Moss.
“In Bothnia, if the father is not known, it is the community’s responsibility to provide for a child. If the father is known, it is that father’s responsibility. There, yes, a father would rather expose his child rather than be burdened being the sole person looking after it. But don’t you see?” said Goatha. “They also do not marry there, yet I have married you. And there is no community here to take on the responsibility of raising the child, yet you provide. To name you father would be to attempt to compel you to give what you already give freely. It would be an insult.”
Moss was silent for a while. “I never thought of it like that”, he said finally. Then he tilted his head up and kissed her gently. “I’ll try not to tax your daughter by thinking about it too hard.”
Goatha patted his head twice and then sat up. Moss disengaged and sat up next to her. “It will be good to work together again”, said Goatha, pulling together a pile of clothes. Topmost was the grey cloak that they still both wore from their time in the Special Service.
Moss smiled and began to pull things on. “Have we got an assignment?”
“Oh, some crisis or another”, she said.
“So Bianca’s decision was in aid of some specific effort?” Moss asked.
“No”, said Goatha. “She didn’t know. I only got the alert half an hour ago, while I was testing her readiness.”
“Testing her?” asked Moss, raising his eyebrows. “Boy would I have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that one.” Then he looked around at the restraining table he had been on. “Well, I guess I was. Wait?” he said, looking back at her. “Half an hour ago? Shouldn’t we have been checking in rather than canoodling on the table?”
Goatha shrugged. “Probably”, she admitted. “But we’ve been early to all the other earth shattering crises we’ve faced. They should forgive us being late to one.”
Moss smiled. “That’s very sweet.” He pulled his boots on. “What’s it this time? Elves? Dragons? Ancients?”
“I’m not sure”, said Goatha. “I was a bit distracted. Something about The Black Hole.”
“Ah”, said Moss. “All Hell breaking loose.” He flapped his cape out and then tied it around his neck. “Another day’s work.”
Goatha nodded. “I’ll head to the Palace. You head to the Academy. Let’s see how long it takes them to work out we’re both on duty.”
Moss grinned. “I like how you think.”
Moss teleported into the arrivals room in the Scioni Academy of Magic. Although most people arrived in Irontree by the municipal gate, those with personal teleportation capabilities could arrive wherever they wanted. All of the important structures in the town, and there were many, had intrinsic defenses against unwanted teleportation. Most just created a dead zone and anything trying to enter magically just had the spell fail. Some would deflect incoming people to the perimeter. Or redirect anyone in the area to a specific place. For the fortifications, this tended to be a jail, so they could explain exactly why they had been trying to break into a secure facility. For the Academy, people were assumed to be miscalculating students and more gently redirected to the arrivals hall.
The place was quite a bustle with people. To keep security simple, it was also the main entryway for the Academy as a whole. Moss dodged and stepped to maintain a leisurely pace yet keep out of the way of people in a rush to either enter or leave. He did so with a lightness in his step and a mood several notches higher than the worried concern that was worn on most people’s faces.
The magical protections recognized him and indicated so to the guards manning the threshold. They performed a simple verification and waved him through. Moss entered but then hovered at the guard post, patiently waiting for them to have a moment.
“People are assembling where?” he asked, when the guard looked up.
“The Mistress has them in lecture theater #1”, he said. “The big one.”
Moss gave a salute and sauntered on. The general flow of people seemed to be away from that area. He guessed that he probably missed whatever big briefing was held. But very little bothered him at the moment. He snagged a couple of pieces of fruit from the refectory which was just opposite the big hall and entered.
There was a general murmur of people in knots conversing as they made their way out. Moss could see down the slope to Magister Devonshire Beth. She was next to the podium talking with a few people. More likely cornered by them, thought Moss, judging the body language. He hopped down the steps lightly towards her.
“Hey Dev”, he called out casually. “Sorry I missed the party.” The people talking to her parted, as they knew Moss was one of the most senior mages at the Academy.
“I hope you had a good excuse”, she growled at him, although it was clear she wasn’t serious.
“Sorry”, he said, shrugging. “I was getting my head screwed back on.”
“Oh”, said Devonshire, a bit taken back. “You missed the summons then?”
“Yes”, said Moss. “My apologies if you have to repeat yourself. But what’s up?”
Devonshire sighed, looked to the hangers on, “If you excuse me?” They made their excuses and left. “Follow me”, said Devonshire. She stepped down from the stage and set up a brisk pace. Moss fell in step next to her.
“I heard something about the gates of hell breaking open”, said Moss.
Devonshire looked askance at him. “Don’t even joke about it.” She shook her head. “Whatever the gods bottled up in The Black Hole is out. Seems that after we killed them, no one stood up to maintain the barriers and they’re down. They’ve probably been down for months. Just no one’s noticed.”
“Let me guess”, said Moss. “It’s not full of cheerful cherubs cascading out to shower us with flower petals in thanks for their freedom?”
They had moved from the theater into one of the wider halls. “Ha ha”, said Devonshire, humorlessly. “More like ravening undead haunts that want to choke the life out of us in thanks for their freedom.” She turned into a small room reserved for lecturers preparing for class. It was quiet and empty. “We’ve got breakouts in at least four places.”
“What are we doing about it?” asked Moss.
“The armies have been deployed. But it’s going to be a difficult engagement. The enemy is well prepared and has selected their approaches well. Seems they’ve been planning this for a millennia”, she sighed.
“What do they want?” asked Moss.
“To choke the life out us, as far as we can tell”, Devonshire said with sarcasm. “And equipment. Anyone they’ve overrun they’ve stripped. They seem to be fighting with weapons and armor made of stone and bone. Real primitive stuff.”
“And they’re still giving us problems?” asked Moss, surprised. “We’ve got the best equipped army of all time.”
“Tell me about it”, growled Devonshire. “They’re tenacious bastards. They aren’t alive. They aren’t dead. That makes them really hard to take down. And it looks like they’ve been practicing for millennia as well.”
“Who are these people?” asked Moss. “All I remember is something about ‘The Forsaken’ and ‘The Great Betrayal’.”
“That’s about all we have to go on as well”, said Devonshire. “We’ve scrambled all the junior mages to hit the history books we have. Try to find some sort of reference. If they’ve got a major beef with the gods, we must be able to come to terms with them. Sounds like we just did them a huge favor by killing them.”
“You would think”, said Moss. He rubbed his chin. “We’ve got to work out what makes them tick. Both physiologically and psychologically.”
“If we’d known they hated the gods so much we could have used them a year ago fighting the gods” said Devonshire.
“Time just doesn’t ever seem to be on our side”, said Moss. “Or was Time one of the gods we killed?” he joked. Devonshire rolled her eyes. “What do the gods know about the Black Hole? Have we asked them?”
“I’m not sure how asking a bunch of people with self-inflicted amnesia is going to help”, said Devonshire. “They’ve got a 200 year horizon they cease to remember things over.”
“Well”, said Moss, “those were only the original hundred and forty three. They’re all dead now. The ones left don’t have that limit.”
“True”, conceded Devonshire. “But they are also more recent. There’s nothing in the history of Romitu about this. So they got forsaken at least a thousand years ago.”
“I don’t suppose anyone’s asked them to put the barrier back up?” asked Moss.
“The cat is out of the bag now”, said Devonshire. “Besides, I wouldn’t be surprised if they let it drop intentionally. Payback and all that. And, if the bastards locked these people up then instead of turning them into mana-slaves like the rest of the heavenly host, I don’t think it is necessarily right to just go and lock them up again.”
“Ah”, said Moss. “A moral dilemma.”
Devonshire snorted. “If we let political expedience trump morals then our hearts are rotten and we’re no better than the gods.”
“Well, it sounds like we have a situation”, said Moss, but he held up his hands to stop Devonshire interrupting. “Once we have a handle on the situation, I think the precedent is clear. Queen Jesca set the standard. We give them the chance for their own final disposition. If they want to be resurrected into new living bodies, we do it. If they want to go to the peace of reincarnation, we do that. If, in the unlikely event, they want to go become mana-slaves to the gods who imprisoned them, we let them do that.”
Devonshire looked hard at Moss. “Can I count on you not to change your tune later?” she asked.
“Absolutely”, said Moss. “My word as a government employee.” He bowed, theatrically fluttering his grey cloak.
“The government you got that cloak from is long gone”, said Devonshire, although she had relaxed a little.
“True”, said Moss. “I guess you’ll just have to take my word as a fellow member of the Household of Scioni.”
Devonshire inclined her head. “That is something I respect and will hold you to.”
Moss smiled. “Good. Now, how can I help?”
“I’ve been sending out full mages in batches to beef up the magical contingents in each army. Kept a few juniors here to shepherd the more advanced students for doing historical lookup and research. This is a military operation, not an Academy one, so I’m letting their chain of command call the shots.” Devonshire shrugged. “Once things are settled here I’ll probably head to military HQ and see what the generals make of it all.”
“Sounds like maybe I should head over there myself then”, said Moss.
“Actually”, said Devonshire. “There’s one favor I’d ask of you.”
“Sure”, said Moss. “Anything.”
“I’ve cancelled all classes for the junior and auditing students. Some of them are from far away and I thought it best to get them home. If you can hang about for about an hour and keep the lid on things I’ll go ahead and get them teleported.”
“That’s right. We have the gratis students from the Underground and the Underwater…” Moss smiled suddenly. Devonshire looked sheepish. “By all means, Dev. Get the kids home. Make sure they’re safe and sound.” He winked at her. “I’ll keep the tea in the kettle here.”
“Thanks”, said Devonshire. “I owe you drinks.”
“This way, students, this way!” cried Devonshire over the twittering din of the assembled students. Given the state of emergency all classes had been canceled. However, any student with any grasp of magic at all had been coopted into either backup or standby positions. That was part of the requirements for being taught the ultimate power contained in the Six Books of Magic. But not everyone in the school was a student of magic.
Since the school was designed to churn out the most powerful people of this generation, there were many that desired that power, or at least the chance to be associated with it. Where the loyalties to Romitu were not strong enough, where it was diplomatically expedient, or where they sought to redress existing power imbalances in the world, scholarships were granted to other children to come and study the non-magical courses.
Devonshire kept her mood higher than she felt and exerted herself to maintain her patience. She was not born to the social elite, but suffered their scorn as a minority elf in the city of Romitu. But here she was, Magister General, leading the brats of the pretentious out of harm’s way. Well, for the most part.
“Underground students, attention!” called Devonshire. “Penny here will escort you to the gate. From there you will transition to Frontgate until classes start again.” In the long rise building up to launching the Second Empire, Scioni built some of his connections by making formal contact and trade with the Underground. Historically, the first Empire was established after a successful raid upon the Underground had returned with much booty and knowledge. They now believed that a single page from the Six Books of Magic had given them enough understanding to found the first Imperial College of Mages, which set Romitu apart from the other city-states of the time. Scioni, who did not neglect history amongst his studies, sent his confederates there, Devonshire included, to explore what could be found.
The city closest to the surface, which those of the Underground called Frontgate, was the terminus of a vibrant trading line. They already had been making quick raids to the surface and feeding their supply chain with exotic surface materials such as wood and weathered rocks. Scioni build a municipal gate at Frontgate and made his outpost at Irontree the only connection. The plugging together of the Romitu trade network and the Underground one brought much needed funds to Scioni and prestige to the autocrats of Frontgate.
It was Devonshire’s suggestion that the children of what passed for nobility in Frontgate be given scholarships to the Academy. Since they were mostly troglodyte, and had no souls, they couldn’t learn magic, and there was no risk of theft of that powerful knowledge. But it would be a favor remembered and would solidify their contact with Scioni’s household, even as the trade network expanded and they had access to other points of trade. She had a soft spot for those students, who always seemed confused and surprised by the world above their heads.
“Next up, those going to Romitu, or other surface capitals”, said Devonshire. She had less sympathy for these. Many were aristocratic children of nobles who were late to support Scioni and the Second Empire. Now that the winner was clear they were scrambling to make connections amongst the up and coming elite. Devonshire strongly disapproved of the entrenched system of privilege which they came from, and which had been to her detriment as a child. Most possessed a palpable sense of entitlement and constantly pushed the boundaries. This frequently created headaches in her office. She sent them on their way with another chaperone and wished she could avoid recalling them whenever this crisis passed.
“Underwater students? Is that all that’s left?” Devonshire asked. She did a quick count. It was pretty easy as they were the most exotic and least humanoid. All had permanent magic upon them to allow them to breathe in the air and float as if it was their natural environment. A quick sweep to confirm that there was no one left with their feet on the ground was sufficient. “Excellent! We managed not to lose anyone. Cindarina, please take the head of the line. Everyone form up on her. We’ll march, or rather swim, to the outer courtyard and I will teleport you personally from there.”
This was the newest group of students. Devonshire had passionately hated those of the Underwater since she had been aware of them. She had been forced to foster her son to them because it wasn’t politic to just kill them all. For the sake of Scioni, and the Second Empire, she had done so. Because of that, she had missed most of her son’s youth. Even more so since he seemed to be aging as a human. But, despite all of that, he hadn’t turned out so bad. He managed to warn her of an assassination attempt that precipitated the god war. And, in the wake of that, his foster father ascended up the chain and left Winter in charge of his domain. There was no love lost between her and Atlantica, but she had to admit that honor was done.
Devonshire led the group at a brisk pace through the hallway and across the main foyer. She glanced back to make sure that all were in line. “All present and accounted for”, said Cindarina, guessing her gaze. Devonshire nodded and turned back.
Cindarina was the closest thing her son had to a relationship. Devonshire found it hard to approve, but she forced herself to. It was his life. And in the circumstances he found himself in, she did not seem to be a bad choice. She was connected to a political faction that was inclined towards Romitu. She possessed a good and honest character, as far as Devonshire had seen. And seemed to genuinely like Winter, from before his good fortune fell upon him. It didn’t matter if she looked more like something she was used to seeing on her dinner plate. Cindarina was his choice and as his mother she was going to honor that.
“Form up”, instructed Devonshire. They had passed out of the magically protected zone. There was still a lot of bustle out here from people going and coming to the Academy, and the roar of Irontree’s enormous forge was no longer magically damped. But the students obediently assumed the hexagonal shape most suited to teleportation. Devonshire made one last check of her own water breathing spells, and performed the incantation.
“I’ve just checked and I’m afraid he swam off this morning to settle some dispute between the selkies and the surface fishers”, said Cindarina.
Devonshire looked grave. She had really escorted the Underwater folk home herself as an excuse to see Winter and tip him off to the alert. Apparently Cindarina had also sought him out first thing and, knowing the palace and its ways better, worked things out faster. Devonshire sighed deeply and a bit awkwardly in the water.
“Then you and I need to talk”, said Devonshire. “Privately.”
Cindarina nodded without question and swam off, beckoning. Devonshire recognized where she lead her as the royal residential area, almost empty now that Atlantica was in the divine realm and his other son had been enlisted. Cindarina turned up a passage Devonshire had seldom been down previously and into a side chamber, unusual as it was not absent its roof as were so many other rooms. As the door shut several cages along the wall revealed glowing fish that cast an eerie light in the room.
“We will not be disturbed here”, said Cindarina. “And Winter has given me to understand that the room is proof to magical spying as well. Although you are the better judge of that.”
Devonshire smiled. “No need. I put the screening in it.” She paused, looking intently at Cindarina. As with most Elves, Devonshire was a master at reading body language. But here, in the Underwater, the bodies and mannerisms were quite different. “Cindarina”, she began. “There are things it is important for Winter to know about. Things that are going to keep me busy for a while. Things that are military secrets. You have sworn no oath of allegiance to Romitu, but you have demonstrated your allegiance to Winter. I am going to trust that.”
Cindarina bowed her head. “I know you do not give your trust lightly. I will do my best to deserve the honor.”
Devonshire nodded back. “We’re at war again”, she said without preamble.
“Not the gods?” said Cindarina. With all the major gods eliminated it seemed incredible that the token remaining would fight against the force that had so decisively beaten them.
“No”, confirmed Devonshire. “Just their unfinished business.” She crossed her arms. “We’re still trying to sort out the details. But we think a couple of hundred years before the founding of Romitu the gods fought something. Whatever was left of it, they bottled it up in a place called The Black Hole. Now that the gods are dead, it’s broken out.” Devonshire held up her hand. “And you don’t need to lecture me about eliminating powers without knowing all they controlled.”
“Just because a tyrant did some good, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate their overthrow”, said Cindarina.
“Well, the overthrow wasn’t exactly how we had planned it”, sighed Devonshire. “But we still bear the responsibility.”
“If your armies were prepared to fight the gods, and the gods defeated these, I am sure you can contain them” said Cindarina.
“We shall see”, said Devonshire. “I don’t have a lot of information yet. They’ve got the drop on us and we’re just getting our armies into the field. The early skirmishes have not gone well for us. But we’re fighting blind.”
“Will you need Winter to fight by your side?” asked Cindarina.
Devonshire rubbed her chin. “He’s held his head together in action before. That counts for a lot. But he really has no experience. I know, the only way to get experience is to be there. But I think I’d rather we knew a bit more about what we’re facing first.”
Cindarina smiled. ‘He will, of course, wish to fight by your side.”
Devonshire smiled back. “Yes, I imagine so. Please tell him that I consider him part of the reserves. If things go well, or things go badly, I will summon him.”
“I will”, said Cindarina. And, after a pause, “If I may ask a question?”
“Certainly”, said Devonshire, without hesitation.
“I know that there is no formal alliance between Romitu and the Northern Seas. At least not yet. But would it be seen positively if, when Winter is summoned, he also brought a small contingent of irregulars to fight with him?”
Devonshire straightened up and looked closely at Cindarina, cursing, once more, her inability to read Underwater body language. This girl was quite astute. Sending troops to aid Romitu would play well with those in command. It would also give them experience and understanding of how Romitu conducted war. No matter her motives, it was a brilliant plan. It was a risk letting them learn such information. But, then, the army of Romitu was the best in the world. Their might was not from secret techniques or abilities. And then she remembered her words from the start of their discussion. She said she was going to trust Cindarina. Seems like the girl decided to test her word. That took a lot of nerve. So be it. Challenge accepted.
“Yes”, said Devonshire decisively. “I think that is a great idea. Should the summons come, I will see to it personally that they have the magic necessary to fight alongside the regulars.”
“Thank you”, said Cindarina. “I will tell Winter all of that.” Then she reached out and touched Devonshire’s arm. An unusual gesture for someone from the Underwater, as they seldom touched. “And please be careful. Winter loves you very much.”
“Thank you”, said Devonshire, willing herself not to choke up. “I will.”
“Cindarina!” cried Winter happily. He squirmed out from the mass of selkies that were cavorting around him on the sandbar. A rising wind whipped the waves and touched their crests with white as they crashed on the shore. A mile or so away a rocky shore could be seen with high headlands enclosing a narrow bay. A few boats bobbed in the water in front of a fishing village, the wood of its buildings as grey as the rocks it was perched between.
Cindarina waved back and sank beneath the waves in the shallows. Winter quickly caught up with her and she led him smiling to deeper water.
“I’m glad you’re here!” he said swimming up within touching distance of her.
She smiled warmly at him. “Not another diplomatic incident? You seemed to be doing well up there.”
He grinned sheepishly and rubbed the back of his head. “I think things are sorted out again. I just used some of your tricks.”
“My tricks?” asked Cindarina.
“Yeah”, said Winter. “I just got each side talking until they’ve said enough to work out something that both can live with.”
“I didn’t realize that was a trick!” said Cindarina.
Winter made a helpless gesture. “It is when you don’t have several generations of insight to fall back on.”
“So what solution did you craft?” asked Cindarina.
“Well, the humans see fishing primarily as gathering sustenance. The Selkies see it as sport. So I put it to the Selkies that only the dumb slow fish are going to get caught in the lumbering nets from the surface dwellers. That leaves the most challenging fish for them to catch.” He shrugged. “They liked that idea so much that they’re now helping the humans by directing them to the fish that are the least fun to catch.”
“Sounds like everyone wins”, said Cindarina.
“I’m still at the remedial level”, said Winter. “I’ll still need you for all the tough problems.” Cindarina’s smile faded slightly. Winter caught that and sighed deeply. “Ah. I’m not thinking. You’re supposed to be at the Academy. And since you’re here…”
Cindarina bowed her head. “Yes. I’m afraid something is up.” She tossed her head towards the open ocean and swam off. Winter surfaced, called a goodbye to the Selkies and followed her.
The surface receded from them and the calm of the ocean made them forget the brewing storm above. Sound travelled far in the water, but it was also easy to see what lay around them. When they reached a discrete distance they came to a halt again.
“Is everyone all right?” Winter asked, right away.
“Your mother is safe”, said Cindarina. “Presently.” She filled in him on all she had been told of The Black Hole and what was going on there.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another”, said Winter. “I’d like to go off and join her”, he started. But he held up his hand to Cindarina’s objection. “I know. It was fine before. Then I was the son of the Captain of the 9th army’s mages. Now I’m the crown of the Northern Seas. I can’t fight for myself now. It would be for my people.”
Cindarina nodded. “Should you wish to do so, though, I had a word with Captain Devonshire and, if it is needed, a small contingent from the Northern Seas in a support role would be welcome.”
“Really?” said Winter. “That’s brilliant!”
“I’ve passed word on to Makaira and suggested he ask around for who might be willing to go”, said Cindarina.
“Perfect!” exclaimed Winter. “See, I should just marry you and abdicate the throne to you.”
Cindarina flushed and tread water agitatedly. “You cannot! That would be improprietous!”
“Yes, yes”, said Winter. “The throne really isn’t mine to give. I’m just keeping the seat warm.” But he reached out and gently touched the back of her hand. “But someday I will have my own. And then I shall keep my promise.”
Cindarina looked deeply into his eyes. “There is still much deep water to cross before that can happen.”
Winter drew back and looked into the depths. “I know”, he said quietly.
Cindarina watched him with concern. When he didn’t say anything more she asked, “Do the dreams still come?”
“Yes”, said Winter, right away. “Every night.”
“Did the magic they gave you in the Academy not help?” asked Cindarina.
“Oh, it helped all right”, said Winter. “But the magic was not to stop them coming, it was to work out where they were coming from.”
“I see”, said Cindarina. “And where are they being sent from?”
“Over there”, said Winter, nodding in the direction he was looking. “Somewhere over there.”
Cindarina followed his gaze. “But there’s nothing there. It is just open water, and a few scattered islands. There’s no kelp and no currents. Nothing of note.”
Winter turned back to her, but wasn’t really looking at her. “And yet”, he said. He fumbled in his loincloth and drew out a crystal. He proffered it to her, and she took it cautiously. “Go ahead”, he said. “It’s a recording.”
“But I can’t use magic”, said Cindarina.
“Neither can I”, said Winter. “Just hold it and concentrate.”
Cindarina put her hands around it and closed her eyes. After a time a soft light shone from between her fingers, and her eyes could be seen darting back and forth under her eyelids. Then, the light went out and she opened her eyes.
“That was unsettling”, said Cindarina. She gave the crystal back. She too, looked up to where Winter had been looking. “There was little to see. But now I know the feeling it brings.”
“Unsettling”, said Winter. “I do not fear it. But I also do not like it.”
“You will go to this?” asked Cindarina.
“I feel I must”, said Winter. “The message is clear. It wants me to go there.”
“That does not mean the message it for your good”, said Cindarina. “You could go to your doom.”
“Yes. But doom is doom. It is your destiny, no more. If I am doomed to die, then I will” said Winter.
“Will you not contact the Academy? Can they not aid you?” asked Cindarina.
“They’re going to be busy with this Black Hole problem”, said Winter.
“What about Makaira? You could take him and any volunteers he rounds up”, said Cindarina.
Winter smiled, and turned back to her. “That would be sensible. I think I am getting too caught up in it all.” He scratched his chin. “It really feels like something I should do on my own. But I acknowledge the wisdom of your suggestions. How about this: I’ll head on out. You go tell Makaira what is up. If it comes to nothing, it will be a good drill at least.”
Cindarina looked grave. “I think it is unlikely to come to nothing. But I am glad you are at least taking some precaution.”
“Cindarina”, aid Winter, seriously. “I love you.” Her eyes widened. “I don’t think I’ve said it right out before. And it’s about time I did.”
Cindarina dropped her eyes modestly. “I’m not sure it’s proprietous.”
“Oh, don’t give me that”, said Winter, putting his hands on his hips. “The whole court knows and there hasn’t been so much as a ‘tut-tut’ from anyone. Just putting a name to it doesn’t change anything. Even my Mother approves!”
Cindarina smiled a half smile. “I did not want to let myself believe this could come to pass”, she said quietly. Then she straightened up and raised her chin. “Wintersbreath Lyndrixlyn Elvenborn, I love you.” Then they both laughed.
Winter swam close, reached for her, and then stopped. “I’m not sure what to do”, he said with embarrassment. “On the surface they hold hands, and, well, I’m not sure what else. And it’s not like anyone other than you ever gave me a second glance down here. I know you don’t touch, but…”
“It’s, um, unhygienic”, said Cindarina. “But close is good.” She swam within a finger’s breadth of him. “The feel of your breath on me is nice. It smells of you.”
Winter swallowed self-consciously. “I guess no one else breathes down here.” The magic he relied on to live underwater didn’t require him to breathe, but not breathing took a lot of effort. He inhaled the water deeply and blew a current over her. She smiled and shivered.
Then she held up her palm and pressed it to his. “The skin is not so sensitive here. Otherwise we couldn’t hold things.” He smiled and brushed his fingers against hers.
“My body is from another world, but my heart is in the ocean”, said Winter. “I guess it’s just as well we’re good at compromising.”
“Go chase your dreams then”, said Cindarina. “The sooner they are behind you the more settled you will be.”
Winter nodded. “More settled, yes. But I don’t think we’ll ever be completely at peace. The world’s too crazy. Just another entity we’ll have to compromise with!”
Winter swam close by under the grey waves. He could see the wind above tearing at them and pulling foam from their crests. He refrained from surfacing to avoid the stinging spray. It was so familiar to the dream that it gave him a deep foreboding. Better to stay underwater, which he felt more comfortable in.
He understood Cindarina’s caution now. This was a desolate place, both above and below the waves. Despite the surface agitation, the water was still, churned by no currents. The land was cleft with sudden valleys, sharp promontories, and boulder fields. There was no coral, no kelp, and even a minimum of sand and mud. It wasn’t surprising no one ever came here.
He knew, from his studies, that outside the known world, the outer waste stretched on all sides. When the Grey Elves created the world, he supposed they only created so much of it. The rest was a blank, empty slate. He never thought to ask if the bleak landscape continued into the ocean or not. If it did, he thought this was a good example of what it would look like.
Beneath him he saw a great mesa. The land fell away on all sides of it. The surface of it was broken, but relatively flat. What caught his eye was a straight line. In all this chaos, there was something that had the look of artifice about it. He swam down deeper and details became clearer.
There was, indeed, a line. A pile of stones organized into a row. It was broken in several places where the land shifted, but it was clearly intentionally built.
He followed it a short distance and found what looked like a cairn. After swimming around it though, it was clear it wasn’t just a random pile of rocks. All those years of studying Triton ruins came to him. The stones were the same sizes as used in the wall, implying a similar mode of construction. Mentally he traced back the pattern of subsidence and the result was more straight walls. Four of them, and a collapsed roof. It was a building.
His first thought was how proud Penny would be that he had applied his studies. But then the rest sank in. Roofs? Walls? No one in the Underwater built like this. It had to be surface work. There was no question now. The sender of the dreams, the one who had lead him here, was definitely connected with his father. Othr, god of some wiped out people of the North. These were their bones.
Winter surfaced, and through the squall he saw a rocky promontory ahead of him. The silhouette of it was just like in his dreams. He let the surf carry him in to the narrow shingle beach, and then stepped ashore.
The wind was calmer here, but cold. Not that it bothered him much. The same magic that let him breathe underwater protected him from the damp and the chill. He just noted the temperature as the wind dried his body.
Some clefts between the rocks afforded a narrow space that let him scramble above the beachhead. It was difficult going for Winter, unused as he was to moving about on the surface, let alone climbing. By the time he reached the top he was winded and had several stinging cuts on his hands.
The land rose steeply before him to a pinnacle, but he barely had to look at that. It was one of the more memorable parts of his dreams. Instead he turned to look at what the dream had not shown him, the view over the ocean.
It was spectacular.
Grey swells heaved up and down, windblown whitecaps skittering their crests. Squalls of rain textured the surface of the sea in patches. Islands lay dotted in all directions. None very large. All barren. The sun filtered down through rain heavy clouds lighting the whole scene in low contrasts.
Reluctantly he turned from the waves. He put one foot in front of the other and slowly climbed the lands. There were either the remains of a path, or an occasional watercourse. It was hard to tell the difference. It was easier going, so he took it.
Turning a bend, there was a ramshackle structure half collapsed against the cliff. A chill went up and down Winter’s spine. He walked past it slowly, studied its state of disrepair and the odd bits of worked driftwood that protruded from its tumbled surface like shark’s teeth. He had no way of knowing for sure, but given how nothing so far was a coincidence, this was likely the place where he was conceived.
His mother had told him the tale several times. She had come here investigating the lost land. On this rocky road she met Othr, large and wiry. A battle god of a fierce people. Only his people were no more, and his two hundred year amnesia meant he didn’t know where, why or that he even had a people. He was a lost, lonely, pathetic creature.
But he had his charm. And Devonshire shared his bed for the night. She really didn’t know what to do with him, but at dawn, he got up, found some battle gear amongst the ruin, put it on, and insisted she fight. The way his mother put it, she did so out of a reluctant kindness. It seemed obscene to let him live as he had, and only fitting to let a battle god go down fighting. So she fought him. And she killed him. And she buried him at the crest of the hill.
Winter kept his eyes fixed on that. The cairn he had seen in his dreams. It was there as he crested the hill. Right on top of the island with a wide view of his drowned kingdom. His spear still stood, fixed upright from the center. Winter touched it gently. His mother didn’t say, but he was pretty sure Othr had been buried holding it, ready to strike, in his hands. It was the closest he was ever going to get to his Father.
Suddenly there was a cracking noise from behind him. He whipped around, heart suddenly pounding. He stared back and forth, breathing deeply, trying to calm down. It was irrational. There could be nothing up here. The place was barren. It was probably a rock he had disturbed.
Then he saw a rock move. Bits of it flaked away and fell to the side. Winter furrowed his brow in curiosity. It shuddered and shrugged and more of the surface fell away. Winter realized it was not a rock at all, but, strangely, a bird. Thickly encrusted with mud and dust as if it had been sitting there for years. It shook itself and hopped from foot to foot and clouds of dust cascaded from it. It was not a type Winter had ever seen. Under the dirt it looked to be black on the head, neck and breast, with lighter shoulders and wingtips.
The bird hopped into the air, and beat its wings, letting out great plumes of dust. It flew the few feet and landed on the cairn and looked directly at Winter. “Caw” it coughed out, hoarsely. Then, “The spear is yours now, you know” came directly into his mind.
Winter started and took two steps back. There was no question about it. The bird had spoken to him. Directly to him. But it seemed somehow familiar. Not in sound, but in feeling.
“You!” said Winter, accusingly. “You’re the one who sent the dreams!”
The bird shrugged. “Not like I could come to you. Birds don’t do underwater well.”
“This is about him, isn’t it?” said Winter, pointing his finger at the cairn. “Have you come to bring him back?”
“Do you want him back?” asked the bird, leaning forward intently.
“I want to know if that’s what you want”, said Winter, folding his hands over his chest.
“Oh, I have no wants myself”, said the bird. “I wasn’t made to have a personal opinion.”
“What were you made for then?” asked Winter.
“I’m your conscience”, said the bird, and Winter felt like it was smiling sardonically at him.
“My conscience?” said Winter. “You mean his conscience?” He pointed again at the cairn. “He made you?”
“Yes”, said the bird, and shook more dust off of itself. “He made me to be his conscience. Now you have his soul, so I’m your conscience.”
“You know about souls?” asked Winter.
“I know a great many things”, said the bird. “I was made to remember. I never forget anything.”
“You never forget anything”, repeated Winter, slowly. Then he pointed his finger at the bird. “You never forget anything. He made you to remember everything. So when he forgot it, he could ask you!”
“Yes”, confirmed the bird.
“He cheated!” exclaimed Winter.
The bird shrugged. “Not my place to cast judgement.”
Winter stepped forward again. “So you belong to me now? Will you tell me anything I ask?”
“Of course”, said the bird. “Everything I know is yours. So long as you ask the right question.”
“OK”, said Winter, challengingly. “You say the spear is mine now. Tell me how to use it.”
“Sure”, said the bird. It flapped its wings and Winter felt something like a cold tentacle burrow into his mind. He cried out and put his hands up. But by then, the sensation had gone away.
Winter stood bold upright. He stared unbelievingly at the spear. “Gungande!” he cried. The spear leapt from the mound and flew straight to his hands. “I don’t believe it”, Winter whispered. He ran his hands over the shaft and traceries came to light in the weathered grey wood. The flat parts of the tip were covered in small stick-like writing. He knew what it could do. How to invoke magic so it would never miss, to extrude barbs up and down its length, to call lightning. Everything he would expect of a weapon of the gods.
He looked back to the bird. “Do you know how to bring him back?” he asked levelly.
“Sure”, said the bird again. “It’s easy. But you didn’t ask me to tell you. You have to ask the question right. Just ask me how to do it.”
“No”, said Winter. “I just wanted to know if you knew.” He spun the spear in a certain way and it shrank and vanished from sight. But he still felt its presence. It was hovering around him, following him, in some sort of magical pocket.
“What do I call you?” asked Winter.
“He always called me Conscience”, said the bird.
“I see”, said Winter, twisting his mouth to one side. “OK, Conscience, answer me this. If you knew everything and Othr here could ask you about it all, why didn’t he use that knowledge to build back his kingdom?”
“I know things”, said Conscience, “Not necessarily motives.”
“Don’t evade the question”, said Winter.
“I wasn’t”, said Conscience, defensively. “I was just getting to it. He did go on about it a lot. He was a god. His power came from his worshipers. Without any worshipers, he had no power to do anything. So he was kind of stuck. Over time he asked less and less questions, and eventually I think he forgot he could.”
“What happened to his worshipers?” asked Winter.
“Look around”, said Conscience. “There was a war. Three other pantheons ganged up on him. Fire and brimstone everywhere. Smashed the whole place up. Everyone got wiped out.”
“But what about their souls?” asked Winter. “I’m not a mage but I know a thing or two about this. The souls of his worshipers must have resided in the divine realm. They should have still been able to provide mana for him.”
“Hmm”, said Conscience. “You do seem to have a brain. Yes. Most of them were taken as war spoils by the winning gods. To add to their own mana creating collection.”
“Most”, said Winter. “That implies not all. What happened to the rest?”
“Ah, that’s where things got awkward for those pantheons”, said Conscience, almost with glee. “You see, the rest of the gods didn’t like the implications of those three ganging up and wiping another pantheon out. So they all ganged up on them to get an agreement hammered out so that no one would ever do that again.”
“Yeah”, said Winter. “I’ve seen firsthand how touchy the gods get about one of their own being taken down.”
“Really?” said Conscience. “Do tell!”
“Some other time”, said Winter. “You were telling me about the remaining souls.”
“Well, it’s like this”, said Conscience. “The souls that were happily brewing mead up in heaven just got transferred. A bit of adjustment, but nothing big after that. But all those who actually fought in the war, that was something else. You couldn’t exactly have them hanging about the place retelling the tale of how naughty the gods had been in wiping out another pantheon. So they took them, and even those who had fought for them, bottled them up, and rammed a cork in. No one left to generate mana for poor Othr.”
“Wait”, said Winter, going cold. “These other gods bottled them up. When exactly did this happen?”
“Seventeen thousand years ago”, said Conscience. Winter was silent. “Do you need a more exact figure?”
“That’ll do”, said Winter, dry mouthed. “You see, they aren’t bottled up anymore.”
Winter started down the slope at a sprint. This was important information he had to get to his mother. Her life could depend on it. Behind him he heard Conscience cough and sputter, and follow behind him. He paid the bird no mind. He had to help save his people.
As the terrain grew rougher his pace slowed. His people? Romitu he meant. His mother’s people. What of his people? The Underwater? To a large degree Romitu was a patron of the Northern Seas. But it was by relation and never formally tested. He assumed what was good for Romitu was good for the Northern Seas. But would that always be so?
He passed the remains of Othr’s dilapidated house, walking. If Conscience was right, what of the people of The Black Hole itself? They had once been Othr’s people. Were they now his along with the spear and the bird? Did he have a duty to them as well? The world seemed to close around Winter. Nothing seemed clear anymore.
“You have come to a turning point”, said a voice.
Winter realized he was not moving anymore. He stood at the bend in the road. Othr’s house was directly behind and further back in the distance was the cairn on the peak of the island. He turned about slowly and, surprised at his lack of surprise, perched on a rock was a swan. Only, he was quite sure it wasn’t a swan, but was Swan. The Grey Elf. One of those who created the world.
Winter knew this was a rare honor. Very, very, seldom did anyone ever see a Grey Elf. And, in all but one occasion it was Swan. But seldom had the exchange seemed profitable. Often the nuances of the interchange had been discussed for years. And, now, Winter had some very difficult decisions to make. More than any other time he could really use some good, insightful advice. Just the sort that one of the creators of the world could give. But he had a sinking feeling that this would not be what came of it.
“But what lies beyond the bend?” asked Winter.
Swan smiled. “That depends on which way you turn.”
“Which way would you turn?” asked Winter.
“The wrong way”, said Swan, furrowing his brow. “That’s the problem. Anytime we’ve come to this crossroads we’ve taken a bad turn.”
“Then take a different one”, said Winter.
Swan sighed sadly. Then he got up slowly. A long slim blade appeared in his hand. Winter found his spear in his own hands. Swan nodded at him exactly the same way as Coral, in the few formal fighting lessons Devonshire had arranged for him.
Winter advanced, feinted, and thrust. As soon as he moved, Swan responded. But the Elf barely moved at all. Yet, somehow, Winter’s blow completely missed him, to the extent that in his recovery Winter impaled himself on Swan’s still blade. He felt it, although there was no pain, and no harm appeared to have been done.
Swan nodded and Winter resumed his position. They closed again. This time Swan’s blade went through his head. Next his throat, then his kidney. Even when Winter knew exactly what was going to happen, he couldn’t seem to change his actions to anticipate what was going to happen.
His temper was just beginning to flare when Swan let go of his sword, and both weapons vanished. “Do you see?” asked Swan sadly. “I made you. I know how you act. I know how you react. We made you the best we could. But, so far, that hasn’t been good enough.”
“What do you need us to do?” asked Winter, in frustration.
Swan bent forward and looked him intently in his eyes. “To exceed us.”
Winter scowled, and then cried “Gungande!” He lunged with the spear into Swan’s torso. He felt the impact and saw Swan shudder.
“That’s the idea”, said Swan. The spear disappeared and his wounds closed.
“You want me to break the rules?” asked Winter.
Swan shrugged. “Water always flows downhill. You can’t change that. But very smart people can design an aqueduct with dips and rises in it.”
“But I don’t even know the rules”, protested Winter.
“I do”, said Swan. “It hasn’t helped me. If you don’t know the rules, you won’t be limited by them.”
“At least if you would tell me what the goal is!” said Winter.
“I’ve tried”, said Swan.
Winter considered. This was frustrating, but in a way similar to many conversations he remembered in his life. Either with far off Undersea creatures, or those of the land. Times when there had been an honest effort to communicate, but the gulf between their frames of reference was so vast as to make each other unintelligible. But he had worked through that with his history teacher, Charonia, and with Cindarina. He could work through that here.
“Reincarnation. Resurrection”, said Winter. He guessed that his personal dilemma over whom he should owe loyalty was not something on the Grey Elf’s radar. If there was an existential threat to his species, it had to be something more foundational. He couldn’t think of anything more foundational than the argument over souls. Certainly that’s what his mother thought. “Why first one, then the other? Why are there even two paths for souls to take?”
Swan shook his finger at him. “It’s not how anyone else does it. Kind of our own invention. It’s possible we could be on completely the wrong track. But it really does seem like it would have a lot of merit. If we can ever bring our species to fruition.”
Winter had no idea what any of that meant. But there was no point in trying to work it out. He had to find common ground. He tried a different track.
“And not everyone had souls. Why do some have them, and others do not?” asked Winter.
“We are not an assembled being. So everything we make has souls” said Swan.
Closer, though Winter. “So who made the rest? The Underground and Underwater creatures?”
“The others who have exiled themselves to this benighted world”, said Swan. “But they only made creations to commiserate them in their misery. Not to actually move them forward. They do not love their creations as we do.”
“You love your people, so you gave them souls?” said Winter. He hit his chest with his fist. “I love my people too. Shall I give them souls too?”
Swan blinked, and looked distant for a moment. “I don’t even know if that would work”, he said. Then he smiled suddenly. “That’s the idea!” he said happily. “I should think it would be hard to make it stick. But if it did. If it did. Well, that would certainly get some attention.” He tapped his fingers briskly.
Winter grinned back. He had something. Or he thought he had something. He wasn’t sure what, or what to do with it. But it was something. Then he remembered something else. Part of the lore that never had any good explanation.
“Dragons”, he said. “What about the Dragons? Are they part of our creation? Or did they make their own creations.”
Swan looked ambiguous. “Dragons are… well… Hmm.” He steepled his fingers. “The simplest explanation, although wildly incorrect, is that they’ve just kind of been following us around.”
It was worth a try, thought Winter. But it’s clearly tangential. He needed to get back to what they had been actually able to communicate around.
“If we gave souls to the creations of others, would the ones that created them get upset?” asked Winter.
“I doubt it”, said Swan. “I don’t even think they would notice. They don’t do much but mope anyway. They lost interest a long time ago.”
“But you, you still have an interest in things”, asked Winter.
“We started losing interest a couple thousand years in. Same ole, same old”, Swan shrugged. “But since we’re still discrete, opinion varied and action didn’t vanish. I’ve been interested the longest. Some of my friends, Diamond, Song, Gnome, and of course Rose… they’re starting to pay attention again.”
There were more Grey Elves in that one sentence than anyone had ever heard of. But Winter wasn’t sure it was actually telling him anything.
“So we have two thousand years left, right?” asked Winter. “To pull off whatever it is you think we need to.”
“No”, said Swan. “You’re going to have to get it together a lot sooner. If you’re going to be of any use against our enemies.”
“Enemies?” said Winter. “I thought they had all lost interest.”
“That’s the other miscreants who ended up here”, said Swan. “How many stars do you see in the sky on a clear night?”
Winter was confused by the question. “I don’t know. I don’t see the stars much. A couple hundred?”
“Those are our enemies”, said Swan. “Although mostly they just think of us as a nuisance. We’re aiming for a higher bar. If you can pull this off sooner rather than later, you’ll save us fifteen or twenty thousand years.”
This was becoming too much for Winter to process. The timescales this creature though of were way beyond him. His plans cascaded well outside of the world he knew. But he felt he was getting an inkling of motive. Perhaps some commonality between them.
“I fight my enemies because I love my people”, said Winter, carefully. “Do you fight yours because you love your creations?”
“It is more than that”, said Swan. “If you can surpass us, we will not matter anymore.”
“Why? What will become of you?” asked Winter. He thought he almost had something there. But it was drifting away.
“You are us”, said Swan. “Or, rather, you are a different expression of us. How different is the acorn from the oak tree from the mighty juggernaut made of oak wood? Many would say that whatever you create is part of you, and so can never be more than what you are. We disagree. If that were true, everything we know would be winding down like a broken automaton. But, look at you! After the fire of your first cataclysm you have emerged and rebuilt.”
“So”, said Winter. “If we can weather one cataclysm and emerge stronger, then it stands that if we can weather a second one, we can grow stronger again. It’s only a matter of inflicting enough cataclysms on us until we’re strong enough to deal with whatever it is that opposes you.”
“I think you have grasped the essence, in a nutshell”, said Swan, although he looked concerned.
“But you’ve never been able to create an ‘experiment’ that made it past the second cataclysm”, said Winter.
“Not yet”, said Swan. “And I fear that enough are losing interest that we might not get to try many more iterations to get it right.”
Winter nodded. He still had many more blank areas. Questions that he knew he couldn’t ask. This Swan was not an oracle. He was just a very, very alien being. But, oddly, he felt he liked him. He was trying desperately to do something he felt passionate about, and support those he loved. That resonated with Winter. Perhaps it was all contrived. That was always possible. But Winter chose to identify instead. He figured it was really the only hope he had of understanding at all.
“Thank you”, said Winter. “I do not know what I can do. I do not know what I should do. But I will do what I do in the hope that it will help.”
Swan smiled. “I can ask no more of you.” He bowed formally, and faded away.
Winter stood for a time, and a light rain began to fall. Presently, with a squawk, Conscience landed on his shoulder in a cloud of dust. Winter grimaced, straightened up, and walked calmly around the bend.
Sweat poured off of Desdemona in what felt like cascades. Once her demonic heritage had become undeniable and she had been run out of her fishing village, she had spent many years in the infernal realm. She was no stranger to excessive heat. But desert fighting was a different thing. Especially with the level of constant engagement they were experiencing.
Her mount, Cookie, was not faring much better. Sweat also stained his flanks, and the fire in his eyes was dimmer than usual. More than the glare of the sun could account for. None of the rest of her troops were mounted. Being both the most mobile, and most experienced, she was dashing back and forth as all sides were repeatedly tested.
She had been asked to lead a small selection of hastily assembled troops. They were inexperienced and untrained in the advanced equipment they had been issued by the Romitu regulars. The force was more symbolic than tactical. Desdemona understood that. The gods wished to be seen to be helpful and cooperative with Romitu in matters that affected their worshipers. And hordes of undead invading their homeland counted.
In appreciation of their gesture, the Romitu command issued them honest orders. Rather than sideline them into some rearguard patrol, they had been selected for one of several special missions. Although honored, Desdemona questioned her wisdom now in accepting it.
“That was rather a pickle”, said Miasma. The mage had been attached to their unit to give them magical support. She swept down now and hovered at Desdemona’s height. “Almost makes me wish we were back fighting demons.” Then she looked slightly embarrassed. “No offence meant.”
Desdemona shrugged. “None taken.” Her skin was darker than her sunburnt relatives, but not darker than a trader from Sindhu. But a stranger would note something suspect in the cast of her cheekbones, and prominent incisors. If she were to remove her helmet her sweat matted hair wouldn’t conceal the two stubs of horns. She was well used to taunts and abuse. The fact that Miasma had forgotten her origin long enough to make an inadvertent remark about demons, and the sensitivity to then apologize for it, was rather touching.
“Here”, said Miasma. “Let me invoke an invigoration.” Her brown tunic and trews were embroidered with the insignia of the 9th Army. Her greying hair was held in place with some form of invisible band and there was a barely detectable heat shimmer of sight enhancement magic hovering in front of her eyes.
She waved, making complicated gestures, and a cool mist settled over everyone. There were sighs of relief from everyone as sticky skin was cleansed, their armor cooled, and the dust rinsed from their mouth. They all stood a little straighter. Where before her troops looked like they were ready to pack it in, they now looked ready to go on. Even Cookie had a new spring in his step.
“Many thanks, Miasma”, said Desdemona. She felt she should more formally address her by her rank. But Miasma was quite casual and didn’t include her rank when introduced. And Desdemona hadn’t learned all the insignias.
“We’ll need it”, said Miasma. She had cast another spell while everyone was recovering. She showed her palm to Desdemona with the pinpricks of light from her scan. “They’ve regrouped and are closing in. Again.”
“Form up!” cried Desdemona. “Action inbound.” There were general grumbles, but people fell in promptly.
Miasma flew closer. “Do you think we’ve got their attention?”
Desdemona nodded. “I do. Let’s move into phase two.” She trotted around the troops. “Time to go back”, she said. “You’re all fresh. Let’s double time it.”
“Cool wine and fresh beds wait for you!” added Miasma. That got a low cheer. Miasma glanced, worried, at the light on her palm. “I’d better cast celerity as well.”
Once Desdemona had set the direction, she circled back to rear guard with Miasma. “Have they decided to stop toying with us?” she asked Miasma. “Are they going to close from behind?”
“Not at this speed”, said Miasma. The magically enhanced troops were moving at quite a pace. She glanced at her scan again. “I’d say they’re going for an ambush up on yonder ridge.”
Desdemona looked ahead. They were coming up to a gully that crossed their path. It ran back towards the 9th’s camp and would make easy going for their troops. It made sense to follow it. It also made for a perfect killing ground. “Will they make it in time?”
“I wish my old bones moved as fast as theirs”, said Miasma ruefully. “I don’t know how they do it without magic. But they’re fast when they want to be. They’ll be there.”
“Fine”, said Desdemona. “Then that’s where we’ll confront them.”
“Got it”, said Miasma. “Are you sure you can handle them all?”
Desdemona shrugged. “Usually I can be pretty intimidating. But I’m not sure these types intimidate easily.” She slowed Cookie, letting the troops get ahead. “Stick to the plan. You play defense until the troops are out of harm’s way. Then I wouldn’t say no to some backup.”
“Okey-dokey”, said Miasma. She hovered close to Desdemona and transferred the scanning spell to the pommel of her saddle. “Just so you have full information.” She gave a wave and sailed off.
Desdemona trotted on. She kept an active lookout for a rear attack, even though the scan showed it to be empty. These creatures were incredibly tenacious. She’s fought some particularly skilled demons in her time. But not entire squads of them. But if they were going to read her every move and anticipate her every action, then the only thing to do was to do dumb things. Or, at least appear to be doing dumb things.
Her troops were entering the gorge ahead. The scan spell showed, not far down from where they were, a cluster of lights on the ridge above them. Although they were wily and strong, the enemy was extraordinarily underequipped. They probably intended to throw down rocks with the strength of the damned. Normally that would probably be enough. But not today.
Desdemona spurred Cookie on. Sparks struck from rocks as he put on speed and raced forward. She drew Seeker, the great sword whose name was her own for many years. She held it high behind her and blackness flowed from it like it was tearing a smoky hole in the sky. Cookie accelerated until he was running along, feet barely brushing the ground. Leaping from one rocky promontory to another like an enormous diabolical goat.
Desdemona grinned as she began the see the figures on the ridge line. They had just begun their attack, but were distracted from it by her approach. That, alone, was telling. Up until now they had been able to assess any tactical situation immediately. Miasma must have been putting up a good defense. And there should have been little Desdemona could do to stop them. The gorge was far too wide to be jumped, even at her speed. By a horse. But Cookie wasn’t a horse.
With a kick to the ribs Cookie leapt into the air. Massive black bat-wings unfurled and beat in massive strokes. Up they sailed, over the ravine and down they came, crashing into the midst of the forsaken.
They were stunned, momentarily, as Desdemona swung around her with the massive sword, screaming an undulating battle cry. Few strikes connected, but their plan was disrupted. They did the tactically smart thing and beat a hasty retreat.
Desdemona’s grin widened. As quickly she slung her sword and pulled out a lariat she had prepared. With a few more wingbeats, she was up, over, and down upon the most exposed enemy. With a toss and pull she had the creature looped. She lashed her end of the line around her pommel and goaded Cookie over the rim of the gorge. With an unearthly howl the undead monster was dragged over the edge and down the side.
“Oh”, said Miasma, who was just flying back. “That’s gotta hurt.”
Desdemona flew up the ravine, dragging the body behind her for a while for good measure. “Seal it!” she cried.
Miasma swooped to the ground. Approached the moaning body gingerly, and cast a spell. Blue light shot from her hands and enveloped the creature’s hands, and then its feet. Blue crystals grew around it, immobilizing it.
Desdemona alighted next to her. She bent down to look at it. Severe abrasions had worn away part of its face, but it still glared back at her with malevolent eyes. She smiled at it, showing it her incisors.
“Well there’s a pretty package for HQ”, said Miasma. “Just let me do a heft”, she added. After a few gestures, she made a grunting noise and lifted the struggling form into the air and over the back of Desdemona’s mount.
Cookie swiveled his head a disturbing half turn and glared at the creature now on its back. A sound came out of his mouth like water being poured on a campfire. Desdemona moved to him and patted his flanks.
Miasma looked sadly at the bound creature. “I hope HQ can talk to you and find out why you guys are fighting”, she said. She made a few more gestures and a healing nimbus spread over the creatures face. The rough abrasions faded away, restoring the grey, wrinkled face. But the healing continued. The face smoothed out, and grew less distorted. Underneath was clearly the dark skin and features of someone from Kemet.
“All’enh ‘elyk alklbh!” the creature screamed at her, its countenance fading back to grey.
“You’re welcome!” said Miasma, cheerily.
“I don’t think it was saying ‘thank you’” said Desdemona.
“I know”, said Miasma, hovering into the air. “I just choose to interpret it that way.”
The celerity spell was still in effect and they made rapid progress back towards the 9th Army’s camp. The enemy forces shadowed them, but did not engage. The troops were in high spirits, proud of being successful at their mission even though they were irregulars.
However, as they approached the outer sentries of the camp, their prisoner started kicking and bucking. Desdemona slowed down to secure it, but it only wiggled off.
“There’s a lad”, said Miasma landing next to it. “Don’t struggle. Really, we just want to talk.”
Desdemona dismounted and held Seeker loosely.
It’s twitching subsided and it looked from one to the other. Then it began hissing quietly, uttering what seemed to be words.
“What’s that?” asked Miasma. “Are you trying to talk?” She leaned in closer, as did Desdemona.
The creature quivered and beckoned them closer. When they leaned closer again, it arched its back, screamed, and exploded.
Miasma and Desdemona staggered back, stunned, and covered head to toe with gore. The rest of the troops came running up and started to cry and shout. Blades were drawn and there was a general scuffle.
Desdemona wiped at her blurry eyes vainly. Then she staggered suddenly as she was hit with a blast of cold water. Dimly she saw one of the troopers standing out of her blade’s reach with one of the magical water skins. He pointed, and she looked up, seeing her troops vainly chasing a spectral figure. It was gliding easily away, making obscene gestures.
“Miasma!” shouted Desdemona. A sputtering came from nearby. She lay on the ground, trying to spit out the ichor dribbling down her face. “Wash her down and send her after me”, ordered Desdemona.
She grabbed Seeker and headed off to where the troops were, but it quickly became apparent there was no point. They cast about fruitlessly, but their prisoner was nowhere to be seen.
“Hellfire, Miasma, what happened to you?” General Alessa had been working at her camp desk when her aide announced that Miasma was here to report to her. But when she glanced up and saw the state of her, she dropped all of her paperwork and jumped out of the chair.
Miasma stood, drenched, nearly head to toe in dark chunky fluid. She shrugged, apologetically, and pushed some sticky hair out of her face. “Sorry. I thought it best to report in before cleaning up.” She looked resignedly at her clothes. “It could take a while.”
Alessa went up to her, but hesitated from touching her. Her nose wrinkled as the smell hit her. “What did they do to you?”
“We actually managed to catch one”, said Miasma. “But when we got to camp, it sort of self-destructed or something.”
“You were with that patrol of auxiliaries Desdemona brought in?” asked Alessa. She glanced back at her desk. She had gotten some notice about it earlier in the day. She hadn’t really thought they were the best choice for this mission, but she saw the political wisdom of it. Also, she had been there when Demara intervened on Desdemona’s behalf. She thought it was a good thing and it felt right to do her a favor.
“Yep”, said Miasma. She kind of looked for somewhere to sit, but thought better of it. “Sorry it got away.”
“Hmmm”, said Alessa. “I’m reporting to the Queen tonight. I had hoped to have something for her.” She ran her hands through her fringe of black hair. “I don’t know if there is any point in sending out another patrol. Any reason to think the next one won’t ‘self-destruct’ as well.”
Miasma shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t get it. He seemed like a nice boy.”
“A nice boy?” asked Alessa, in disbelief. “The Forsaken?”
“Yeah”, said Miasma. “He got a bit roughed up during the capture, so I did some healing on him. He looked quite human for a moment. Like one of those scared street urchins we saw when we marched through Kemet.”
Alessa looked away into the glowing brazier. “It’s easy to forget they are human. Or once were”, she added.
“Still”, said Miasma. “To… blow oneself up. Just to avoid us talking to him. I don’t get it.”
“The new moon”, said Alessa, smiling thinly. Miasma looked blank. “I guess rumor hasn’t got so far around. I probably should make some sort of formal announcement anyway.” She stood up straight, bowed her head and began pacing in front of Miasma. “You’ve noticed they’re awfully hard to hurt, right?”
“This huntsman from Syros put three arrows in one. Barely slowed it down”, said Miasma.
“And that they’re pretty much fearless”, continued Alessa.
“Did my best phantasm on Seeker to make it utterly awe inspiring. I thought I did a good job. But they barely flinched.”
Alessa nodded. “You see, it doesn’t matter what we do to them. Hack a limb off. Slice them in two. We just destroy their body. Their soul lives on.”
“Oh”, said Miasma. “Kind of like our swords?”
“Kind of”, said Alessa. “Only they’re still fairly destructive in their phantom form. And even harder to hurt.” She rubbed her war painted cheeks. “What’s worse is that every new moon they get their body back.”
“They regenerate?” asked Miasma. “Or resurrect? Or is it a new form?”
Alessa held her hands up helplessly. “I don’t know. You’re the mage. We only just found out about it when we had a new sudden onslaught.”
“So it was just, basically, slipping the knot we tied it up in, then”, said Miasma. Alessa nodded. “Hoo boy. That’s a quandary.”
“That’s precisely my problem”, said Alessa. “What’s the point of fighting them tooth and nail, when they’ll just be back where they were in a month’s time?”
“It also explains why they’re so battle savvy”, said Miasma. Alessa looked questioningly at her. “Well, they’ve probably been passing the time cooped up in there fighting all the time. At the end of the month, poof, back they are. Ready to go at it again.”
“That makes a lot of sense”, said Alessa. “I kind of feel we’re heading in the same direction.”
Miasma rubbed her chin. “It is kind of like they’re spreading their curse to us. I mean, we can’t just let them wreak havoc over the countryside. But we can’t just eternally fight them here.”
“We’ve got four major break outs”, said Alessa. “Our troops are pretty good, and extraordinarily well equipped. The gods are chipping in mana to keep the reservoirs full. We’ve got them contained, mostly. But we’re not making progress.”
“If only our swords would capture their souls. Then at least we’d just have to kill each one once.” She looked contemplative. “I wonder why they don’t. Maybe it has something to do with how the departing souls are keyed.”
“Could be”, said Alessa. “We do know that there’s certainly no bias pulling them to any aligned divine realm. They just hang around like ghosts.”
Miasma nodded. “A ghost is a spirit that is so consumed with some task, that it overrides its bias to return to its god, or to be drawn into a new fetus. I wonder what drives them so.”
“Killing everyone else?” asked Alessa. “That’s seems what they’re bent on doing.”
“That would be rather unfortunate”, said Miasma. “If there was a way to get them in touch with their humanity. Get them back to what they were before all of this.”
Alessa pursed her lips. “Actually, I don’t think they’ve all completely forgotten.” She waved her finger. “The 22nd has made some sort of progress.” Miasma looked up with interest. “Porterhouse dredged up some Orcish legend about some hero of theirs who had to hold off the invading Romitu army while all the other warriors were under some witch’s curse. He challenged them to single combat. And, as long as he won, the army wasn’t allowed to advance.”
“Certainly sounds Orcishly heroic”, said Miasma.
“Ainia says it’s probably older than the Romitu conquest. She’s seen similar stories whose main purpose is to remember name lists. It’s how important people get recorded. Or something like that.”
“That’s Ainia”, said Miasma. “One for the history books.”
“True”, said Alessa. “I think Porterhouse was just trying to give a pep talk to his myrmidons, but it struck a chord with the Forsaken. They liked the idea and came to an arrangement. Whichever side’s champion won, their army got to advance a hundred paces.”
“Really?” said Miasma. “That’s almost… civilized.”
Alessa grinned ruefully. “We tried the same with the other breakouts, but they didn’t buy it.”
“That’s a pity. How’s the 22nd holding up?”
“Not badly”, said Alessa. “Porterhouse and the Forsaken leader seem to have some sort of arrangement where they each first brag about their chosen champion. Devonshire’s been doing the interpreting. They seem to try to create fairly equal matches.”
“Very curious”, said Miasma. “I wonder what’s different about this group.”
“Hard to say”, said Alessa. “They look as dried and wrinkled as the others. But their commander seems to have a tight rein on them.”
“How have the troops responded?” asked Miasma.
“Porterhouse has a pretty tight rein on them too”, said Alessa. “Helps that he’s personally faced off three times against their leader.”
“Good gravy!” cried Miasma. “Three times?”
“Yes, and he lost each time”, said Alessa.
“Oh dear”, said Miasma. “Isn’t that a bad thing for Orcs? To lose face in front of his troops?”
“Well, maybe traditionally. But death isn’t exactly permanent anymore. I think they’ve modernized their attitudes somewhat. Also, from what I heard he acquitted himself to the satisfaction of his troops. And that’s what counts.”
“We’ve got to find a solution”, said Miasma. “This can’t go on.”
“Actually”, said Alessa, laughing quietly. “Among the lot of us, I think Porterhouse is having the time of his life!”
Miasma joined in. “Maybe I need to do a tour of duty with the Orcish Army. Broaden my horizons.”
“They’re an interesting lot”, said Alessa. “But I should let you get cleaned up. You’ve at least given me something to pass on to the Queen.”
“Oh?” said Miasma. “And here I thought our mission was an abject failure.”
“Well, you had some good ideas about Souls”, said Alessa. “We’re not going to win this one by force of sword. We’ve got to find something in the Six Books of Magic to pull a rabbit out of a hat.”
“It always seems to come down to that”, said Miasma. “Well, good luck with the Queen then!”
General Alessa strode purposefully through the darkening camp. Her dark bobbed hair framed the red warrior’s paint on her face just like the scattering of other Amazons in the 9th army. It was a traditional army so it had mix of people from all over the Empire. But the red cape flowing from her shoulders set her apart as an officer and her gold chastened breastplate set her further apart as the army’s commander.
Despite her steady stride, she wasn’t actually going anywhere in particular. She was due to meet the Queen soon and wanted to organize her thoughts and get herself together. She had no idea what she was going to say to the Queen. But it always helped to walk amongst her troops, hear them call out to her, and witness the respect they had for her firsthand to drive away the self-doubt and worry that plagued her when she was alone.
Queen Jesca was going to want to know the situation. That was easy enough. But she was also going to know what to do about the situation. And, other than fob it all off on the mages, Alessa was out of ideas.
Right now things are mostly a stalemate. As long as the gods kept them supplied with mana, they could continue to throw bodies at the problem. Even though these Forsaken fought like a demonic paragon, Romitu weapons and magical equipment made up the difference.
The lunar cycle didn’t help either. They thought they had the problem contained. And then, suddenly, over the course of a moonless night, they were overrun once more. Discipline saved it from being a rout, but they had lost a lot of ground. They were still losing ground, but not as fast as before. She was confident that they would turn the tide and beat them back. Just in time for the next new moon.
General Alessa snapped a salute to some ratings coming back from mess reflexively. They were all good troops. They could keep this up for quite some time. But from what they knew these Forsaken had been doing this for centuries. This was their game, not hers. She wasn’t going to beat them at this. And the troops deserved a winning chance. Judging by Porterhouse’s experience it really was just a game to these not-quite-dead fighters. Their spirits must be high, with novelty like they’ve never had in a very long time. And the prospect of being locked back up would make them fight like berserkers.
Everything kept coming back around to there being no military solution. And that just wasn’t good enough. It may turn out to be true, but the Queen was going to expect Alessa to have some sort of options. That token force from Syros hadn’t done so badly. Maybe they could recruit another army or two. Or let two of the breakouts run rampant and divert their armies to decisively drive back one. Then shift back. But how to keep them in The Black Hole?
She was walking the perimeter now, the lights of the tactical gate getting closer ahead. Large dunes of sand rose to her right marking the edge of the camp. The whole area had been levelled when they arrived and the sand not used for fill had been pushed into berms on the side.
Except, there was a work crew here, busily shoveling the sand into one of several waiting wagons. Alessa’s walk slowed as she passed. The wagons weren’t military issue, but looked to be the type used by civilians for military contracts. The size of their tactical gates dictated certain restrictions on the width and length of carts that were different than the ones normally used for commerce. So it made them somewhat distinctive.
She came to a stop at the head wagon and looked over the shovellers. Some were soldiers wearing off-duty uniforms, and others were civilians in plainclothes. By their dress and the fact several were troglodytes, she guessed they were from Irontree. Then, lounging about was one tall, thin figure she recognized.
“Greywind?” she asked inquiringly. He turned with a guilty start. “What exactly is going on here?”
“Oh! General Alessa!” he said lightly. He made a show of rushing over to her, skipping around the laborers. He kept moving until he was on the opposite side of her and she had to turn away from them to keep facing him. “How delightful to see you! It’s been absolutely ages.”
“Yes, yes”, said Alessa. “Other than the odd drink at the Russet Monster’s Rest the army keeps me kind of busy. And since you normally avoid authority like the plague, yes, it has been absolutely ages.”
“Well it’s good to see you now”, said Greywind. “I love the hair. It really suits you. And those gold highlights!” He gestured at her breastplate and shook his head in awe. “Stunning!”
“Thank you Greywind”, she said patiently. “But you still haven’t said what you’re doing here.”
“Oh, I was getting tired of the city”, he said. “Out here, in the desert, you can just…” he spread his arms and breathed deeply. “Unwind! Do you know what I mean?”
“No”, said Alessa. “I don’t. I’ve been too busy fighting screaming hordes of damned souls to notice.”
“Oh”, said Greywind, waving her comment away. “Forget the day job. Look!” he pointed upwards. The rapid sunset was over and the canopy of twinkling stars had come out. “The stars! They’re so amazing here. There must be hundreds of them!”
“So you came here for the stars?” asked Alessa, fighting a smile.
Greywind nodded mutely, dabbing at a corner of his eyes. “They’re so beautiful”, he said in an emotional voice.
“What about your friends with the shovels?” she said, gesturing over her shoulder with her thumb.
“Ah”, said Greywind, his composure changing. “Them.” He coughed and straightened his tunic. “They came for the stars too.”
“Greywind!” snapped Alessa, warningly.
“It’s all above board!” said Greywind, pleadingly. “Your folk are off duty. Just working off some friendly gambling debts with the sweat of their brow. The trogs are all paid for. Totally above board.” He smiled pleasantly and wrung his hands.
Alessa rubbed her head. “Greywind”, she said tiredly. “You never do things above board. Even when it’s easier that way. What are you up to?”
“OK! OK!” complained Greywind. “You’re right. I confess! I’m stealing your sand!” He held both hands in front of him. “Shackle me! Take me away! Don’t bother calling a lawyer. I spent most of my third grades in the magistrate’s office. I know the law. Let my punishment be determined by the value of the crime. Which, with the current market value for sand means you can lock me up and throw away the key for, oh, about seven minutes.” He put his hands back on his hips and looked at her challengingly.
“That’s the nice thing about being in charge in the military”, said Alessa coolly. “I can use my discretion about when to engage in time wasting activities. I don’t want to lock you up. I just want to know what’s going on.”
Greywind sighed deeply. “Well, there’s all these carts bringing stuff and resupply to you out here in the desert. And they’re all going back empty. Seems a terrible waste of gate resources. So I figured…” he wiggled his hands. “Why go back empty?”
“So you’re smuggling sand back to Irontree?” asked Alessa.
“Yes!” he said. She raised her eyebrow. “Well, there’s precious little else here.”
“And what are you going to do with the sand back in Irontree?” she asked.
“I thought I’d do a bit of gardening”, he said. “Get in touch with my Elvish roots. Mom always said you need good, well drained, sandy soil to grow turnips.”
“I thought you never knew your mother”, said Alessa.
“You had to bring that up!” huffed Greywind.
“Fine. I’ve changed my mind. I don’t care what bizarre scam you plan to run in Irontree with the sand. It’s not my problem. I’ll leave it up to the civil authorities back there. As long as the military supply line isn’t tampered with.”
“Aye-firmative”, said Greywind. “Can I go now?”
“Yes”, said Alessa. “But one thing: if I ever catch you gambling again with any of my troops you will pay for it.”
Greywind looked at her indignantly. “What are you going to do, confiscate my dice?”
“No”, said Alessa. “I’m going to hold you down while Devonshire casts a pattern magic spell to find every place on your person where you’ve hidden your favorite dice, we’re going to take each one of them, and re-adjust the balance so they throw fair.”
“You monster!” cried Greywind, aghast.
“Carry on”, said Alessa, saluting as she moved off into the night.
The last wagon cleared the gate in Irontree and followed the troops directing traffic to a waiting area. The large tri-form arch loomed over the area, its interior going from desert sky, to a fuzzy, to clear, as it powered down and prepared to switch to the next scheduled connection. The troglodyte gently snapped the reins and the donkey pulling the cart moved it away, through the fortified outer ring, and into the holding pen.
This was the first of the secondary municipal gates erected by Scioni, architect of the second Empire. Knowing, full well, the military potential of the gates, he erected it in a fortified compound within the city, not right on the market square. They could, trivially, seal it off and any force attempting to enter through it.
A trooper stopped at the wagons, and noted that they were riding low. He looked questioningly at the troglodyte. She shrugged, and pulled back the tarp, revealing the bed of the wagon full of sand. Puzzled the inspector picked up some of it, and let it run through his fingers. He shrugged back, tucked the tarp in place, and waved to them to ride on.
Once clear of the market the driver rapped her knuckles on the side of the wagon three times. With a sputter and groan, Greywind shook himself up from the sand he had been buried in.
He hopped out, stretched and took several deep breaths. “Hey”, he said, to the troglodyte’s amused look. “It’s hard to not breathe. Even when you know the magic will keep you alive.” He touched one of his rings and a corona of magelight surrounded him briefly, leaving a shower of sand in its wake. He ran his hands through his hair and beard, and tugged his clothes back into place.
“You’ve got it from here?” he asked. The troglodyte nodded, grinning widely. Greywind exchanged a complicated handshake with her and watched the wagons trundle into the night.
There was nothing more uplifting than another scam accomplished. Greywind sauntered into the night, keeping to the alleys and shadows out of habit. He had a love-hate relationship with Irontree. It was a very new city. Or, rather, more of a town. Magically built, so it was annoyingly clean and in good repair. The sewers were positively pristine. He glowered at the municipal lighting. At least in Romitu you could jimmy up the works on the gas lighting in the richer areas. Here it was all magical and even lit up what passed for the slums.
But, on the other hand, it was a town that never stopped. At least half the residents were the troglodytes who originally lived here before Scioni made it his base. Originating underground, they paid little attention to night or day. They slept when they were tired, and woke up when they were rested. So, no matter the hour of the day, there was always a dice game to be had.
His walking took him more towards the outskirts of the town. They had been somewhat overambitious when they built it. Magically constructing enough buildings for a city. But they never did end up needing it as the redoubt they thought they would need, so there were never as many settlers as they expected. And the troglodytes felt uncomfortable in spacious accommodations, and just packed themselves into fewer buildings. So there were many areas that were all but deserted.
The darkness closed in around Greywind as he moved into a long alley. Although there were magical lights for the alleys too, they were turned on and off from the houses. Greywind went on occasional patrols, broke into the unsettled houses, and turned the lights off. Just for comfort.
With the darkness came quiet. Even his own footfalls became quieter. Greywind pursed his lips and began to whistle a tune. It was a merry and cheery tune, celebrating a festival that was still half a year away. Before long he started rattling the coins in his pocket in a percussion accompaniment.
“Would you just knock it off”, came a voice, very close behind him.
Greywind gasped in dramatic surprise, turning. “My Lady Nocturne!” He executed a parody of a bow. “Why, I had no idea you were there!”
She stood, the shadows of the alley drawn around her like a cloak. Her black skin was only discernable by a slight change in texture. One brow was arched over eyes, whose depths reflected the stars of the heavens. “Mmmm. Hmmm”, she intoned, unbelieving. “So. How goes the war?”
“The war?” asked Greywind. “Which war? We finally beat Romitu. And the war with the gods was called off due to lack of participants. What does that leave?” he tapped his fingers on his lips. “Oh!” he said. “There has been rather a large deployment of the army. I did notice that. Is there a war on?”
“Yes”, said Nocturne. “I smell the nighttime desert air about you. You were just there.”
“Why so I was!” said Greywind. “How coincidental.”
“It’s a long time till dawn”, said Nocturne, “but don’t try my patience.”
“Well the troops say they’re getting their butts kicked”, said Greywind. “But I couldn’t help notice they still had plenty of time to play dice.” He leaned against the wall. “And when I talked to General Alessa, she seemed kind of worked up about it all. But in a professional soldier sort of way, not in a run around screaming sort of way.”
“Hmm”, said Nocturne, considering. “We’re ‘loaning’ them considerable amounts of mana. At least they seem to be using it well.”
“I hope you’re getting a good rate”, said Greywind.
Nocturne smiled thinly. “We’re looking more for a return on investment here.” Then she folded her arms. “Ever end up with some information that would be really important to someone. But you can’t exactly tell them, since you would have to explain how you got that information?”
“Oh, yeah!” said Greywind. “My third time through fourth grade I had all the hiding places the kids used to exchange their love notes. I had all the love triangles and back stabbings charted out. I was dying to tell someone! But that would get me beat up for sure.”
There was a long pause. “Yes”, drawled Nocturne. “Exactly like that.” Greywind nodded enthusiastically, with absolutely no sincerity. “So the problem with being a backstage player, when the front stage and curtains have all suddenly been disintegrated, is that you’re actually stuck with responsibility.”
“That’s terrible!” said Greywind in horror.
“So I can’t really, not pass this information on”, she said. “But what I can do is pass it on through a double blind. How would you like to do a stint as the herald for the goddess of night?”
“Oh, no”, said Greywind, backing away. “Just because you’ve caught the responsibility bug doesn’t mean I have. There isn’t a responsible bone in my whole body. There’s no way I’m going to do your dirty work for you.”
“Look”, said Nocturne, uncrossing her arms, “if you don’t want to get your hands ‘dirty’, just point me in the right direction. Who can make use of my information and not get freaked out by me manifesting or reflexively try to kill me?”
Greywind took a few hesitant steps forward. “That depends on your information.”
“It’s pretty dry stuff”, said Nocturne. “All the juicy bits are to do with politics and scandals long dead. I’ve got the names of the Forsaken leaders, troop counts, and regimental structure. At least what it was two thousand years or so ago. Military stuff. Who in command can make use of that?”
Greywind snorted. “You are asking me for an authority figure in an enforcement agency that I can recommend?”
“Yes, of course, silly me”, said Nocturne, waving a hand. “Just something about the way you name dropped ‘General Alessa’. What was I thinking?”
“Hey!” said Greywind indignantly. “We go way back to when she was a boozing mercenary. God I miss those days.”
“They can probably deal with the Romitu, Kemet and Sindhu troops, but since the whole ‘Great Betrayal’ thing all the Norslanders got wiped out. They’re an unknown quality to your people.”
“They’re not my people…” began Greywind, then stopped short. “Did you say Norslanders?”
“Yes”, said Nocturne. “Used to be another nation of people up by the Northern Seas. Until…”
“Until their land was pulled under the water, leaving only a few scattered islands”, finished Greywind.
“Huh”, said Nocturne. “I thought this was lost information. I’d never heard of them.”
“It was”, said Greywind, quietly. “We heard about them from Angelika, who had been trapped in a cyst for a few thousand years. Dev, me, and a couple of others checked them out.”
“You’ve been there?” said Nocturne, interested. “What did you find?”
“A bunch of bleak islands, rather a miserable place”, said Greywind, still distant. “Just one god wandering around, lost and confused.”
“Othr?” said Nocturne, shocked. “Seriously? What did he say?”
“Not a lot”, said Greywind. “He porked Dev, then the next morning they fought, and she killed him.”
“Devonshire Beth? The godkiller?” said Nocturne. “Why am I not surprised!”
“But wait”, said Greywind, hollowly. “There’s more.” He had her attention again. “She got pregnant. Had his child. The child has the same soul.”
Nocturne drew close, looked him deep in the eyes. “The soul of one of the first gods lives?” she asked, hushed. “This… child, of Devonshire Beth, godkiller, is Othr reborn? How ironic.”
“You know”, said Greywind, “I think Dev would really like your information. She’s in the army, and has a personal interest.”
“You want me, Nocturne, goddess of night, to talk to Devonshire Beth, godkiller?” said Nocturne, astonished. “No way! Not a chance!”
“It’s important”, said Greywind. “Her son’s a good kid. If this is going to mess him up, she needs to know!”
“Who’s getting all responsible now?” mocked Nocturne.
Greywind fussed and sputtered. “If you can’t stand up for your drinking buddies, who can you stand up for?”
“I don’t know if this has any bearing at all on the kid”, said Nocturne. “I didn’t even know about the kid until now. But it’s no deal.”
Greywind scratched his chin. “OK. How about this. Someone who isn’t party to all of this. Who both Dev and the kid’s respect. Penny, one of his teachers.”
“As long as she hasn’t killed any gods”, said Nocturne.
“None that I’m aware of”, said Greywind. “But you’ll need to check your gravitas at the door. She teaches ancient studies. All those creepy crawly things that were around before we were even here. She’s not very impressed by gods.”
“I’m far less arrogant than the first gods”, said Nocturne. “I still remember being mortal. That’s how I put up with your insolence.”
“Fair enough”, said Greywind.
She stretched her shoulders. “I’ve actually been kind of hankering for some adventure like I used to get up to as a moral. Could be fun.”
“Oh, you should hear the scam I’m pulling now with the army”, began Greywind.
Nocturne waved him away. “Tell me when you’re done. In the meantime you might ask yourself why they all put out carved turnip wards during the autumn festival in Romitu.”
Greywind blinked. “I never thought about that.”
“It started as a joke”, said Nocturne. “But, some other time. Tell me where I find this teacher.”
Nocturne slowly emerged from the shadows in a dark recess in the Underground Troglodyte city called Frontgate. She stood quite still, against the roughhewn wall and took in her surroundings. The nook had been carved at some point during the haphazard construction of the city. It was clearly meant to be the start of something, but had ended up never going anywhere. It was just a convenient dead-end that she could emerge in, unnoticed. At the end it joined a more trafficked thoroughfare. There were dim lights from fungal plantings around thresholds. Passersby also carried lanterns to guide their way as their feet slapped on a floor worn smooth from use.
She had shrunk from her divine size down to that of a common troglodyte, and wore a flowing caftan of dark silk with silver highlights. It was gathered at the waist and wrists in local fashion. Her face was brown and wrinkled, and wisps of thin grey hair showed under her felt hat. For her appearance, she had used some of her divine magic. But she was determined to pursue the rest of her little adventure using only her skills. Just as a point of pride.
Picking her moment she sauntered from the alcove and blended into the traffic. No one noticed, or at least didn’t make much of it. She moved along with the flow, not caring particularly much where she was going. She studied their stride, the body language, how far apart they liked to keep, and other nuances of expression. She smiled to herself, feeling the old habits return. This was good. She had gotten too soft in the divine realm.
Pungent smells filled the air. A vendor was selling small bowls of thick stew from a stall. Nocturne stood in line and observed how people waited. How they paid. Where they kept their money. With a mimed coughing fit she lurched into a patron and relieved him of enough coinage to pay for a bowl.
She stood with the others, eating quickly so they could return the bowls. It was spicy. Very spicy. Her eyes watered and she sucked her teeth, trying to will the burn away. But other patrons were also gasping, and stamping the ground with their feet. The cook called out some question and many of them laughed. She wasn’t the only one who thought it was hot. The man whose money had paid for her food went to a little table, and filled up a glass from a pitcher and downed it. Her first bite had hit her stomach now and she quickly followed him. Better to forego the bravado and settle her stomach for the work ahead.
There were a wide variety of markets and craft stalls along the passages. Nocturne was quite fascinated. Now was not the time to dawdle, but she noted several things that looked to be worth a return visit. Who knew there was all this in the Underground? She should definitely get out more.
But her quarry was in sight now. An unpretentious shop front with a sign depicting a three eyed creature with tentacles, and numerous sigils carved around it. She walked pass three times to get a feel for the traffic, and then stopped. It was pretty quiet and dark once she shrouded the fungal planter with her cloak. The few locals who passed were very kind and carried glowing lights to announce their presence.
She very gingerly tried the door, but it didn’t open. From the way the latch moved, it felt to be a fairly simple one, with just a bolt holding it. More of a “please come back” rather than a “do not enter”. Nocturne pulled a small stiff wire from her voluminous sleeve and bent it into the required shape. Sliding it past the handle she felt it catch on the expected bolt. A few tugs and she felt the door loosen.
She palmed a small mirror from her other sleeve, cracked the door open a smidge, and had a quick look. The lights were dim, and there was no sound or motion. Nodding, she slipped everything back into place, retrieved her cloak, and flexed her muscles. When she was sure no one was passing, she moved it open just enough for her to eel through, and slid it gently shut behind her, bracing herself in the door frame.
Standing, spread-eagled in the doorway was not the most comfortable, but it gave Nocturne a chance to inspect the new environment. Cluttered shelves curved in all directions, with indirect lighting making a confusing play of shadows. Just about anything could be hidden anywhere. Tricky. But, thankfully, the floor between the shelves was bare rock. Other than right inside the entrance, where a muddy rag-rug lay.
Nocturne squatted down, braced her hands against the solid rock floor she could see, and examined the rug closely. She smiled ruefully noticing a portion that slightly bulged, and a dirt colored brass tube leading under a bookshelf. She more firmly planted her hands, and then did a slow hand stand. The rug wasn’t that big, so she just finished the somersault and stood past the threshold, in the shop proper.
She moved through the shop, quietly and slowly, examining the shelves and items on them, without touching anything. The variety and novelty of the merchandise delighted her. It was altogether different from almost anything she had seen. Her fingers itched at one or two pieces but she reminded herself to stay focused on her goal.
Toward what she guessed was the rear of the shop the tenor of the goods changed. They became more like an ordered library rather than a display case. Dim light came from one row which also had carpets on the floor. As Nocturne edged around the corner she saw an orc bent over a desk reading a large book. From her age, she assumed it was Penelope, rather than her mother. She smiled, crept forward as far as she dared, then nonchalantly leaned against a nearby shelf, causing it the creak.
Penelope looked up suddenly, startled. She then marked her page, shut the book, and stood up holding a small pointed object in Nocturne’s direction. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” Penelope asked.
Nocturne held up her hands, palms forward. “I’m just here to talk.”
“You aren’t a troglodyte”, said Penelope. Nocturne grinned. She let the divine magic fade away and flowed into her normal dark skinned, shadow cloaked form. “A human”, said Penelope.
“Actually, a goddess”, corrected Nocturne.
Penelope shrugged. “Same order. The shop is closed. Please leave. Now.”
“Or what?” asked Nocturne. “You’ll stab me? I’m a goddess. It takes a lot to hurt me.”
“This isn’t a blade”, said Penelope dryly. “It’s a bulb full of powdered hydrangium. Its mere proximity, without this lead shielding, causes insanity and hallucinations. If you are unlucky enough to inhale it, it will probably be permanent. I’d rather not. A deranged goddess would make a mess of the shop.”
“OK”, said Nocturne, taking a step back. “You got me there. Point to you. But I really do just want to talk.”
“My grandmother is taking her rest right now”, said Penelope. “I will not permit her being disturbed.”
“Then I’ll talk quietly”, said Nocturne, lowering he voice. “It’s you I came to talk to.”
Penelope looked at her skeptically. But then she put the tube and bulb in a drawer, sat in her chair, and indicated a hassock. “And why, exactly, does a human goddess want to talk to me?”
Nocturne nodded, then flowed forward and sank on to the stool. “You are a purveyor of information, are you not?”
“No”, said Penelope. “That’s my grandmother. I am a teacher, a dispenser of information.”
“Perfect”, said Nocturne. “We find ourselves in strange times. Contrary to my usual nature, I’m not here to barter information but to give it away. And it concerns one of your pupils, teacher.”
Penelope leaned forward. “Who is it, and why go through me?”
“I’d really rather not get too close to someone whose mother makes a habit of killing gods”, said Nocturne.
“Winter”, said Penelope.
“Winter”, confirmed Nocturne.
“Is this connected with whatever it is that shut down the Academy?” asked Penelope.
“Most likely”, said Nocturne. “There’s some very old dirty laundry of the gods that just floated to the top of the septic tank.”
“Define very old”, said Penelope.
“Two thousand years or so”, said Nocturne.
“Ah”, said Penelope, “the early modern period.”
Nocturne snorted. “Before my time, in any event. One of the factions that have suddenly spewed across the land is from a place that doesn’t exist anymore. A place called Norsland.”
“Oh”, said Penelope, nodding. “The Great Betrayal of the Norslanders by the gods of Kemet, Romitu and Sindhu. This is then related to Othr being the last Norsland god and the father of Winter?”
Nocturne stared at her, dumbfounded. “Why do I even bother?” she asked herself. “Here I am, goddess of the secrets of the night, breaking character to reveal information. And everyone knows it already!”
Penelope nodded at the book on her desk. “It is a coincidence. I just happened to be reading about it before you came in.”
Nocturne craned her neck to look at the book. “I am most curious about your book, then. And what other secrets it contains.”
“It is my grandmother’s. If you come back when the shop is open, perhaps you can barter a copy of it for a copy of your source of information.”
“I beg your pardon?” asked Nocturne.
“You just said that this happened before your time. Yet you have knowledge of it. What is the provenance of your information?” asked Penelope matter-of-factly.
There was a long silence. Nocturne shook her finger at Penelope. “You are a formidable opponent”, she said, lightly.
“I am a scholar”, said Penelope.
Nocturne laughed quietly. “That’s twice tonight you’ve got the better of me. I’ve got to do this mortal thing more often. Being divine has made me lazy.” She held up her hands. “Fair enough. Apparently not all of the first gods were oblivious of their 200 year amnesia. Turns out Grave Keeper worked it out fairly early on, and directed his most pedantic servants to take detailed records.”
“And you… liberated these after he died in the god war?” asked Penelope.
Nocturne cracked her knuckles. “That’s who I am!” Then her expression became blank again. “Winter has ascended the throne of the Northern Seas. Do you know what that means?”
“I have picked up a smattering of Undersea history. I know there are certain rights and titles that go with it”, said Penelope.
“Given your dismissal of the gods, I suspect you haven’t concluded that he’s stepped into the shoes of a position held previously by a god. There are more than rights and titles involved.”
“Are you saying that Winter is a god?” asked Penelope.
“I remember being mortal”, said Nocturne. “That also means I remember becoming a god. It isn’t a cut and dried thing. I just did what I did. Pulled my capers, cut a swathe through the underworld, retired and came out of retirement dozens of times. At some point I started to realize that the deference people gave me was more than just respect. I could hear them. And I could act on their behalf. They were praying and I was creating miracles.”
“I know Winter would rather be at classes in the Academy”, said Penelope. “But his sense of duty keeps him in the Undersea. Is this the start of it?”
“Yes”, said Nocturne. “But it is more complicated than that.” She shifted on the hassock. “I was lucky. I filled a niche and it just happened to be what I was, because I created it. Winter has stepped into someone else’s shoes. This god thing works both ways. People worship you for what you are. But, you also tend to become what people worship. Their worship generates mana, but you can only use it if you truly represent what they worship. It many ways your worshipers mold who you are. Do you see where this is going?”
“You are saying that the longer Winter is on the throne, the more he will truly become the Surge of the Ocean”, said Penelope. “That he will more than identify with the sea people, but become one of them.”
“In time, yes”, said Nocturne. “If things were left to go the normal course.” She shook her head. “But things are not going the normal course.”
Penelope considered. “I’m sorry”, she said at last. “You have now got the better of me. I don’t know where you are going.”
“One of the tribes of Forsaken, that have broken from The Black Hole, fought, died, and where punished for two thousand years for their service to Othr”, Nocturne said slowly. “Othr’s soul now resides in Winter. Winter has taken the first steps towards becoming a god. And now he suddenly has a whole bucket of new worshipers. Bloodthirsty, vengeful, battle crazed, very, very, very strong willed new worshipers. “
Penelope swallowed. “I think I begin the grasp the import of what you are saying.”
“Good”, said Nocturne. “Then I can count on you to impart to him how serious this is?”
“Absolutely”, said Penelope.
Penelope took the municipal gate from Frontgate to Irontree, and the mage on duty at the Scioni Academy of Magic kindly teleported her to the small military post at the archaeological digs near Winter’s palace.
The guard there greeted her familiarly. Usually she arrived with a gaggle of students and work orders for them to be digging or restoring part of the extensive ruins. So her arrival when school was closed was unusual. But they were already preoccupied with the little news they had of the conflict going on down south. She stopped long enough to borrow some water environment magic and moved out into the night.
Swimming was not a skill Penelope had mastered. It wasn’t generally done much in the Underground as it was generally thought to be unhealthy. With her supervision of the work on the Triton ruins, she had gained some familiarity with moving about underwater. But sustained swimming was still awkward for her. She resigned herself to walking across the sea floor.
Above the waves the sun was rising. The light filtered down and began to etch the outlines of the rambling buildings that made up the palace of Atlantica and its surrounds. She reflected as she walked that it would not be long before this palace, too, was a ruin. Its primary building period was long past and precious little maintenance had been done of late. It occurred to her to sketch a plan of what state it would be in after another couple of hundred years. It would make an interesting reconstruction assignment for her class. To take the familiar, render it unfamiliar, and see who worked it out.
But, then, if what the dark goddess said was true, the building might be spared that fate. Winter had a healthy respect for the material record, and should he truly come into divine powers, Penelope could see him restoring, or even extending the palace.
By and large, though, Penelope was not impressed with the architecture arising from the new magic. It was too cheap. Too easy. You could make structures that were grandiose in scale, but lack true grandeur. The Scioni Academy of Magic, built to be a bastion of learning and knowledge, had all the majesty of a shack that had been expanded to giant size. In fifty years it would be a hated example of the new wave of building.
If they had another fifty years. That was well beyond what Penelope expected to live. Orcs did not live long, her grandmother notwithstanding. She could see the new magic stretching her. Drawing out her life. Penelope was grateful for it. She loved her grandmother dearly. But it made her thin.
But that might be no matter if the current crisis was as much of a threat as Nocturne believed it to be. Penelope was quite unsettled by it all. She was a student of history. Usually so ancient as to be completely abstract. The nuances of decisions and events could be considered and argued from what evidence there was. There was no immediacy to it. And it wasn’t personal. She never asked to partake of history. She knew the scrutiny to which actions were put and didn’t want any part of that. Yet here she was.
Her presence was noted as she moved into the town proper. She was well known here, both for her unusual looks and as a repeat visitor. Several Tritons called out to her by name, and offered to help with anything she needed. They gave her nearly as much credit as Winter for the dignity and respect that had been restored to them by acknowledging the worth of their past accomplishments.
Penelope, following after her grandmother, was used to motivating her students through a mixture of terror and fear. Her encyclopedic knowledge of history more ancient than their species won their respect even as the lessons were hated. And though she had scant knowledge of Triton history, these people loved and lauded her for just being interested in it. She wasn’t quite sure how to react to that, or even if she should.
At the palace one of the handmaidens who met her was a pupil of hers. Such was her enthusiasm that she assumed Penelope had come to give them make-up lessons while the school was not in session. And the creature was even disappointed when she found out that was not the case! Penelope felt quite emotional about it. Which was even more unsettling.
Penelope was brought to a waiting room. It was explained that Winter was still about the lands, reviewing his subjects and settling disputes. But that Cindarina was looking after his affairs while he was out and would be with her shortly.
That was turn of bad luck, thought Penelope. She would rather have spoken to Winter directly. But since he was nearly inseparable from Cindarina, it would probably be just as well. She was quite a sensible girl. Winter’s passion for history was wild and exuberant. Cindarina’s was much more focused. While Winter easily grasped the tactical and economic considerations that guided the flow of history, Cindarina was the one who understood the motives and aspirations of cultures. She seldom drew analogies with the modern cultures she was familiar with, but Penelope saw her making the associations in her eyes. Winter was genuinely interested in the science of history. Cindarina sought its practical applications.
“I’m sorry you were kept standing”, said Cindarina, approaching Penelope from a side room. “It is easy for us to forget the surface culture’s norms.”
“It is no matter”, said Penelope. “We are not on the surface. We are in the Underwater. It is your norms we should abide by.” She bowed formally, Triton fashion.
“I hope your desire to see Winter is not urgent. We are not sure precisely when he will be back.” There was a trace of uncertainty in her voice.
Penelope glanced to the right and left, and noted the handmaidens at their stations along the edge of the rooms. “I’m sure, since the Surge of the Ocean saw fit to appoint you to see to his affairs, that it would be just as well for me to deliver my message to you. I, myself, do not know the full import of the message. But since it may involve affairs of state, may we discuss it in private?”
“You flatter me with confidence”, said Cindarina. “I myself am not so self-assured. And, equally, I will be but a messenger and not the best one to judge confidentiality. You are wise to suggest caution as due prudence.” She turned to a handmaiden. “We will retire to the roofed room in the private quarters. I will entrust you with the duties of the court for the duration.” The handmaiden bowed, clearly delighted with the honor.
Cindarina beckoned Penelope forward, and lead her into the private portion of the palace. “This room is getting a lot more use, of late, then I would have expected”, she said as they entered the magically sealed room and she closed the door behind her. “At least there are chairs in here”, she gestured towards a few simple chairs in the corner. “If it would make you more comfortable, I can replace the water with air. I have magic to assist me so it is no burden.”
Penelope took a chair. “Yes, I am a bit unsettled. That might help.” Cindarina nodded and pressed some glyphs near the door.
“I take it, then, this is urgent?” asked Cindarina. “I do not think I have ever known you to be unsettled.”
“Yes”, said Penelope flatly. “I am no diplomat. I am unskilled at mincing words. I am told that Winter is in grave danger.”
“Who has sent this message?” asked Cindarina, concerned. “Is it from his mother?”
Penelope smiled. “Ah, my student. Checking the sources. The first question you should always ask.” Then she resumed being serious. “No. A… god… manifested herself to me. I’m not sure which. She said of ‘darkness and secrets’, or something like that. Clearly not affiliated with Atlantica. I tell you in confidence as she did not seem to want her identity revealed.”
“I do understand that relations between the surviving gods and those loyal to Romitu are complicated and discretion is required”, said Cindarina.
“You probably understand more than me”, said Penelope. “And I hope you understand better than I the mechanisms of divine rule, as this is what is involved.”
“I cannot promise I do”, said Cindarina. “But I can try to make sense of what you cannot.”
Penelope breathed deeply and composed herself. “In taking up Atlantica’s mantle, Winter has, apparently, taken on some of the aspects of godhood previously enjoyed by Atlantica. I am unaware of the specifics, but apparently the people’s faith in him, in his position, conveys to him the ability to grant their wishes.”
Cindarina nodded. “That would explain much. He has not seen it himself, but he has become much more facile in the nuance of relations in the Underwater.”
“In being such a conductor for the will of the people, he becomes an expression of their wishes, not just the enactor of them”, said Penelope. Cindarina leaned forward intently. “This bit confuses me too. But I think the way she explained it, the desires of the people mold the god into what they want.”
“So”, said Cindarina slowly, “Winter is likely to become more like Atlantica.”
“To some degree”, said Penelope. “Although as there has been a shift in the relative power balance, I expect he will reflect that.”
“But it was Winter who mostly effected that shift”, said Cindarina. “Even if there is such divine pressure, I would think it wouldn’t push him that far from where he is.”
“Ah, Cindarina”, smiled Penelope. “Don’t discount your own role in things. But, no matter, his wishes and yours coincide. But it is no matter. That’s not the problem.”
“What is then?” asked Cindarina.
“Winter carries within him the soul of another god”, said Penelope.
Cindarina became very still. “He has feared his father might awaken within him” she said quietly.
“I do not know if that fear is justified”, said Penelope. “But the altercation that has broken out and closed the Academy down involved the freeing of many souls. Many of which once worshiped Winter’s father.”
Cindarina looked distant. “So now Winter has new worshipers. Perhaps many more than in the Northern Seas? Ones whose desires and wishes are quite unlike our own?”
“Perhaps”, said Penelope gravely. “It is not clear if they still worship his father, or if that would end up still being directed at Winter. It is clear that there are many more of you in the Northern Seas, but I’m given to understand that only those possessing souls rather than spirits are effective in this divine counting game. There are many unknowns.”
“More than you are aware of”, said Cindarina.
Penelope wrinkled her brow. “Oh dear”, she said. “I do not ask for more than you have said, but I offer my help if I can.”
Cindarina smiled, and touched Penelope on her hand. “Thank you. You have been very helpful. A danger known is a danger that can be guarded against. Winter is presently questing for more information on some of these other unknowns. This may bring clarity to them.”
“I hope so”, said Penelope. “I truly do.”
Cindarina swam rapidly through the subsurface layer of the ocean, lit by the morning sun. On her flanks two more Tritons swam, taking advantage of her upwash vortices. Unlike her, they had on shagreen armor and tridents strapped to their backs. Comparatively unburdened she could set a brisk pace without fatiguing them.
Ahead was the tail of the ridge that the copious Triton ruins resided on. A specific arrangement of secretly potted kelp let Cindarina know Makaira waited there for her. She had observed, silently, much intrigue and subterfuge in her lifetime. She never had cause to use it, herself. Just being facile in language and understanding personalities had been enough. But now that she had moved from being an observer to an actor, she was glad of the education.
Their direction and composition was easily observed. That wasn’t so important to her. She was not entirely used to it yet, but she knew she was now somewhat of a celebrity. And with the departure of all those closest to Atlantica, the Tritons made up the single largest grouping in the seas. They were not nearly a majority, but having been on the low end of things for so long, they had a unity the other groups did not. So, although it would be common knowledge that she was ‘up to something’, all the gossip would be about what good it would bring.
They passed the outlying kelp sentinels, and then crested the ridge and moved into the forest itself. In a small dell waited Makaira and six other Tritons.
“Greetings Cindarina”, said Makaira, bowing deeply. He, too, wore shagreen armor and weapons of war. He was powerfully built and stared directly at Cindarina.
“Greetings to you, Makaira”, said Cindarina, returning the bow, just as deeply. “I thank you for your service.” She waved at the surrounding kelp. “And your discretion. Do you have any news?”
Makaira shook his head. “We have swum the length of the blighted area, from the Selkies, along the coast to where the great eels breed. We have sounded our horns, but none answer.”
Cindarina nodded. “I will be asking you to seek again”, she said.
Makaira nodded. “And you know I cannot refuse you.” He sighed deeply and leaned on his trident. “But I do question the point. I hope, as you do, that no ill has befallen our liege. But I think that he will come in his own time. And all of our seeking will not rouse him until he is ready.”
“The situation has grown more dire”, said Cindarina, somberly. “If he is fated to come in his own time, I would that you were there, waiting for him, to render aid and bring him news, even if it only hastens his knowledge of things by a few days or even a few hours.”
“I have talked to the Romitu soldiers”, said Makaira. “I know they make war again. But it is far away. Yes, I understand that, diplomatically, that which aggrieves the faction that supports us is important, but I do not see the direct relevance.”
“The direct relevance is this”, said Cindarina. “We, the Tritons, and all of the Undersea, have always been a second thought to whoever has been on the throne. They are not really our gods. We can have no gods, since we are no use to gods. They are the gods of those of the shore. Distant and irrelevant in court, but they are all important as the source of power. We” and she gestured around her to the whole of the ocean, “are just props. Stage dressing. We only matter for theater.”
“Yes”, said Makaira. “This I know. Winter is important because he has grown up god-blind. He thinks the stage play is real. We need to support and promote him, to curry our favor and build fond memories within him so that when he does realize where his true power is, he will still be mostly kind to us anyway, out of nostalgia.”
“Winter is a good man”, said Cindarina. “He will always treat us fairly. It will pain him, as he tries to be a good god, to keep the balance between what is right and the natural dynamics of things. It has been important to make it easier for him to choose what is right over what is natural.”
“We say the same thing”, said Makaira, with a small smile. “You have just said it much more diplomatically.”
Cindarina nodded in acknowledgement. “That being said, then, there is an aspect to this ‘far off’ war that puts pressure on that balance.”
Makaira looked intrigued. “Then please educate me. Tell me what I do not know.”
“A faction of the warriors they fight has been cut off for several thousand years. Before then, they worshiped the gods of the blighted area you have skirted, where Winter quests.” She watched Makaira’s face become very sober. “Winter has inherited the throne of the Northern Seas from his foster-father, Atlantica. I tremble with uncertainty to find out what birthright he has inherited from his other father.”
“The situation has, indeed, grown dire”, said Makaira. “We may lose him before our task is complete. If this new power claims his heart, we will be condemned to being props again, on an irrelevant stage.” He looked past her, into the distance. “All this would have been for vain.”
“No”, said Cindarina, forcefully. “Look at you.” She gestured up and down him. “Are you blind to have far we have come? You bear weapons and armor of war. Would that not have been unthinkable, not even a year ago? We are unmolested in our life. We can provide for our loved ones. We have gained so much.”
“Yes”, said Makaira. “I spoke in haste. Forgive me. We owe much to Winter.”
“That is right”, said Cindarina. “And we owe him this: to stand by him. To bear him this news. Even if it heralds our demise. He has many difficulties pressing in upon him. We have to be there to make them easier for him. It will be remembered when it comes time for him to choose.”
Makaira laughed quietly. “So we make it easier for him, and thus, make it hard for him in the end.”
“If it comes to that end”, said Cindarina.
“It will”, said Makaira. “But you have the right perspective.” He pulled his trident from the sand and shook it. “He has given me the right to use this for more than hunting. It is right for me to use it to his ends.” He thrust it into the ground again. “I will search, once more, for our liege. I will give him this dire news. And I will willingly do as he commands. If I am fated to be a prop, then I will make he who wears me as glorious as possible.”
Cindarina nodded. “I thank you for this.” She gestured over her shoulders. “I also bring more forces. These handmaidens are my swiftest and strongest swimmers. And we had much sport in our youth spear fishing.”
“They are welcome”, said Makaira, bowing to each of them. “Your credentials are nearly as good as mine. We make do with what we have in this merry band of ours.” The two who had been following Cindarina bowed back.
“In another year’s time”, said Cindarina, “who knows where we will be.”
“If are not willing to start from a small beginning”, said Makaira, “then you will never start at all.”
“I have arranged for there to be provisions marked for you with the Selkies”, said Cindarina. “That should speed your passage.”
“You are a favorable current”, said Makaira.
Makaira paused at the edge of the current and scanned the depths beyond. There was mud, sand, and occasional massive rocks jutting out. It wasn’t natural. It was not what the ocean should look like.
He could tell his companions felt the same. Their glances, their body posture, all spoke to being somewhat unsettled. It was hard to place, but something about the land beyond just wasn’t right.
But it was along here they had returned. It was where Winter had gone and where Cindarina had sent them looking for him. They had travelled the length of where it bordered the Northern Seas, and were now travelling back. Every hour or so they stopped and called, as they did now.
They formed a line along its edge. First Makaira called, and then the others joined in. Each picking a resonant pitch depending on what vocal range they could sing. They grew tired at different intervals and had to draw breath, but there were enough of them going at any one time to keep the chord sounding out across the sea floor.
After a minute or so Makaira stopped, and stayed silent. In their turn each of the rest ceased and the sound drained away. They hovered in the water for a while, getting their strength back and listening intently.
Faint echoes came. First from the larger rocks nearby. And later from other landforms hidden in the murk of the water. There was no clear reflection from a ridge, a dappled one from a shoal of fish, or signals that could easily be read. More of the unnatural terrain with its erratic stones stuck up like the rotten teeth of a shark.
When the last echo died Makaira slumped. He signaled to one to break out the food and they all paused to eat. “After this, herding mullet will be a snap”, joked one. With all the practice, his crew was getting quite good at sounding. They harmonized perfectly across the whole spectrum of their range. Makaira smiled wryly. At least they had a future in fisherding.
Then, Makaira paused, mid-bite. He stood straight again, straining. He thought he had heard something. He motioned the rest quiet. They all became attentive. There was definitely some noise in the water. It wasn’t the trill of a dolphin, or the clucking that some fish made. It was low, and continuous. Something he had never heard before.
He looked to the rest. They all heard it but were equally confused. Then, one pointed. There was a small wake coming from the blighted area. As they watched, something drove through it, straight at them and impossibly fast. They put down their food and reached for their weapons.
It was hard to make out. It had a pointed snout like a sword fish and the rest of it was hidden by the wake. It did not flex side to side or top to bottom. It had no fins to speak of. It just bore down upon them making an increasingly louder buzzing sound.
And then the sound stopped. The wake peeled away and there was Winter, torpedoing through the water like he had just dived from a high rock. His speed reduced and he moved into his normal swimming stroke, ceremonial cloak flapping behind him. He came up to them and then stopped, facing them.
Makaira bowed. “My Lord, Winter. Glad are our hearts to have found you!”
“I heard your cries and came”, said Winter. His face was stern, and his eyes were distant.
“We were sent to be of aid to you, if we might”, said Makaira.
Winter’s focused turned to them, and took in their arms and weapons. “I see”, he said. “That you might. That you might.”
“Cindarina has received warnings of the far off war”, said Makaira. “Those who once followed your father fight upon its fields.”
Winter nodded slowly. “I figured as much.” But he smiled thinly and bowed. “But it is good to have confirmation. Thank you for bringing it to me.”
“Do they seek your leadership?” asked Makaira. “Will you go to them? Do you claim them as your birthright?”
Winter raised his eyebrow. “I don’t think they have any idea I exist”, he said, kind of amused. “I imagine they will be rather surprised to find out.” He swam down their length, inspecting them. “But, yes, I will go to them. And I would like for you to come with me. Although I do not order it so.”
“I could not possibly decline your request!” said Makaira. The rest nodded enthusiastically.
“Be very sure”, said Winter, cautiously. “I do not know where this path leads. I am not happy that these time lost warriors make war upon my mother’s people. But they, also, have suffered a terrible wrong by callous gods now dead. I’m not sure I have any claim over them. Or if they would acknowledge one if I had. But since I’m connected to this all somehow, I feel I should see if I can do something about it all. Somehow.”
“Sire”, said Makaira. “The soldiers of Romitu stationed in our lands have regaled us with many tales of how they followed their Queen into the pits of the demons. Are we not as brave as they? Would we balk at following our King onto any field of battle?”
Winter smiled, a trace sadly. “I am no Queen Jesca. I do not know what I have done to inspire such loyalty, but you do task me to live up to it. I thank you, then, for pledging your tridents to me. There is, at least, one thing that I do have that Romitu does not.” He pulled back his cloak and a thoroughly miserable looking black and white bird clung to his shoulder.
The Tritons stared, incredulous. “A bird underwater?” said Makaira. “It isn’t even a sea bird.”
“No”, said Winter, grinning. “It was one of my father’s advisors. He’s full of all sorts of useful information.” He swam around them, and then, suddenly, was holding a mighty spear. “Let us go to war then.”
Dust blew in the door to the command tent of the 32nd army as Morandor lifted the flap and let himself in. He chuckled as he shook the sand out of his beard and strode over to General Ainia as she moodily studied a map. He stepped up on a stool, still idly combing his hands through his beard.
The map floated above the ground depicting the terrain in their vicinity. It appeared as a large roll of parchment with peaks and valleys depicted by hatch marks and small charcoal notations of their units and conjectured enemy units. However the notes around the units could be seen to update themselves periodically, belying its magical nature.
“What’s got you so amused?” asked Ainia dryly. The dark red horizontal stripe of Amazon war paint was dipped with the furrowing of her brow.
“‘nother batch of auxiliary volunteers turned up, General, Sir”, said Morandor. “Only these were from the Underwater. Came in flopping about the place like fish in a net.” He chuckled some more.
“I take it you had a mage see to them, after you had a good laugh”, said Ainia.
“Yes sir”, said Morandor. “A full recovery is expected.”
“Mmm”, said Ainia. “Who was the genius that teleported them in without giving them above water protection?”
“There’s the thing”, said Morandor, putting the finishing touches on his beard. “They teleported themselves.”
Ainia turned away from the map. “Teleported themselves? But they have no magic in the Underwater.”
Morandor shrugged. “If you say so. But that kid brought them. Devonshire’s whelp. She must have given him a magic ring or something.”
“Winter”, said Ainia. “Why did he come here, and not the 22nd? That’s where Devonshire is stationed.”
Morandor shrugged again. “They’re asking for orders. Do you want to send them there?”
“No. I’ve no idea what sort of mother-son politics is going on. And I definitely don’t want to get involved in that.” She turned back to the display of the battle field. “Do they look any good?”
“They looked pretty priceless thrashing about on the parade ground”, said Morandor.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’”, said Ainia. She stroked her chin. “We’ve got some dispatches and materiel to send to the 33rd that doesn’t warrant a strategic gate. Kit them out and have them report to escort it there.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to send them back to dig canals?” asked Morandor, sniggering.
Ainia shook her head. “Orders are to give all auxiliaries a fair chance. When they blow it, we can set them peeling potatoes with no questions asked.”
“Mmmm. Potatoes”, said Morandor. “I’m glad the Army sees fit to import the good stuff from Westdale. Nothing better.”
“I’ll leave you to it, then”, said Ainia. “While I work out how to get killed less quickly”, she muttered.
Morandor gave a sloppy salute, hopped down from the stool, and strode out the door into the wind.
Morandor scowled into the wind as the sand peppered his face. The natives of this area he talked to said it could get a lot worse. If it got worse, he could just suit up. Their equipment kept them comfy in the demonic realm itself. If it was better, he wouldn’t be worried. So the sand was a very precise level of inconvenient.
“Are the fish sorted out yet?” Morandor barked at the assigned mage. He had come up outside the tent where he had left the volunteers.
Bala jumped and then saluted. “Working on it sir.”
“Working on it?” asked Morandor. “What’s to work on? It’s all standard equipment. We have standard issue packs. Is that so difficult?”
“They don’t, um, exactly have standard bodies”, said Bala. The mage had unwound his turban a few turns and wrapped it around his head. That gave him some protection against the sand. Although, thought Morandor, it did make him look rather silly.
“Well, we’ve trained you to keep on your toes in the grand army of Romitu”, said Morandor. “So I know you’ve come up with an ingenious solution. Tell it to me.”
“Well”, began Bala uncertainly. “They did bring some of their own equipment. It fits them already. I had been considering applying the standard magic to that to tide them over.”
“Sounds fine to me”, said Morandor.
“I’d have to tap into the strategic mana reserve to do that”, said Bala, hesitantly. “I’d have to ask you to sign off on that.”
“Hmm”, said Morandor, holding his chin in his hand. “I’ll sign it if you do the paperwork”, he said. Bala looked relieved. “But find out who their god is, and make sure you cross charge the mana depletion to them.”
“Well”, said Bala, even more hesitantly. “Technically, according to the almanac, their leader is their god.”
“What? That little twerp?” said Morandor, incredulously.
“Sssh”, said Bala, cautioning him with both hands. “He’s right inside the tent.”
“He’s the son of the Magister General, ruler of some submerged hamlet, and now he’s a god too?” asked Morandor, no quieter.
Bala shrugged. Morandor shook his head, lifted the tent flap, and stepped inside. Bala followed close behind.
Winter stood in the middle of the room, wearing little other than his sable cloak and a black and white bird on his shoulder. His Triton volunteers milled around him, examining skeptically various pieces of the standard Romitu soldier’s kit.
They looked up as Bala and Morandor entered. “Major”, said Winter, stepping forward and bowing his head seriously. “I am honored that you came.”
Morandor looked at him appraisingly. “Yeeeessss”, he said slowly. “Thank you for… volunteering.”
“I am happy to serve”, said Winter, bowing his head again. “Whatever orders you care to give we will gladly follow in service to Romitu, who has been very supportive of us.”
“Wellllll”, said Morandor, starting to scratch his beard again. “First we need to solve the problem we have with your equipment. We can’t send you off to fight the ravening hoards with less than the best. Fortunately”, he slapped Bala’s rear, “the Corporal here has a solution.”
Bala coughed. “I think I should be able to lay down the minimum supportive spells on your existing equipment. That will tide you over for the moment. I can perform the incantations, but it will take some mana.”
Winter nodded. “I am agreeable to that.”
“Can you vouch for the mana?” asked Morandor.
“I can vouch it will be replenished”, said Winter. “Atlantica has sworn any and all aid in divine matters.”
Morandor shot Bala a glance. “Note that down. And carry on.” He turned back to Winter. “What about yourself. Seems the kit should fit you fine.”
“I am fine fighting as I am”, said Winter.
Morandor raised an eyebrow. “Oh really?” He looked him up and down. “Is your bird going to protect you?”
“Yes”, said Winter, with no inflection. “My bird will protect me.”
Morandor rolled his eyes. “Note that too”, he said to Bala. He turned back to Winter. “If you bite the big one out there, and you don’t have a sword to save your soul, or a helmet to call for backup, or a canteen for your thirst, or anything else, I don’t want anyone to come complaining to me about it.”
Winter looked him back in the eye. “My Mother won’t come and harass you.”
Morandor wagged a finger at him. “That had better be the case.” He glanced over at Bala.
“I’ll note it”, said Bala.
“Have you got a mission for us?” asked Winter.
Morandor gave him a long stare, and then looked around at the Tritons. “You tell me. Your troops seem a bit out of it.”
“They are a little disorientated”, said Winter. “Going from underwater to a sandstorm is a little confusing.”
“Like a fish out of water?” said Morandor. Bala cringed.
“You might say that”, said Winter, levelly.
“We’ve got some packages that need escorting to the 33rd”, said Morandor. “Do you think you can handle that?”
“I was hoping for something more combat related”, said Winter. “But we will do as Romitu directs.”
Morandor snorted. “The 33rd is up to their elbows in undead. I would not be surprised at all if you see action. And I will be surprised if your hope does not change.”
“We will follow your orders, and events will dictate who is surprised”, said Winter.
Morandor smiled. “Excellent.” He turned to Bala. “Do your magic”, he said, wiggling his fingers, “and send the paperwork to my desk. Collect the consignment from logistics and go with these fine folks as guide and mage.”
“Yes sir”, said Bala, saluting. Winter also gave Morandor a salute. Morandor shook his head, laughed, and ducked back out of the tent flap.
Winter wiped grit out of his eyes as he struggled up the sandy slope. The ground was treacherous, with loose rocks, sand, and sharp thorny vegetation. As he crested the slope he was hit by the wind and a blast of sand, full force. He turned, shielding his eyes, spat sand, and looked over those following.
The mage they had been assigned, Corporal Bala, sat cross legged on top of the baggage cart they had been assigned to escort. He directed the magics that kept it levitating and flowing over the terrain, tapping it with a small stick on different sides. Ultimately the carriage was not all that different from the balloon carriers used to position heavy objects in the Underwater.
Arrayed around him were the Tritons under his command. The magics they had been given spared them the effort of strained muscles unused to walking. They floated along just above the surface, their swimming motions converted by the magic into propulsion. The wind was problematic, and almost blew them away at times. But they were grimly determined in their task, and overcame their aversion to touching things to hang on when needed, as the magic protected their skin from abrasion.
“Is it always like this?” asked Winter, as Bala reached the top. “Or is this some magic on the part of the enemy?”
“It is not always like this”, said Bala. “But it often is. I think it is just bad luck instead of enemy action.” He moved the carriage forward and let the Tritons rest for a bit in its lee. “At least we are missing the heat of the day!”
Winter squinted and looked about. Between the darkness and the sand it was hard to see anything. There could be an ambush anywhere. “Does Othr have any wisdom to pass on about desert warfare?” he asked Conscience.
The magpie pulled his head out from under his wing briefly to glare at him. “Not especially. He mostly stuck to more… agreeable climates.”
Winter grinned as Conscience put his head back under his wing. He had no fondness for the bird and didn’t feel guilty about the indignities and discomforts it had endured. It was the work of his father, and, perhaps, the epitome of his spirit. A cheat designed to evade a sacred oath he made to all of his fellow gods. If Winter was to be a god, and he wasn’t sure he really liked that idea, that wasn’t the model he wished to follow.
But the information the bird provided was useful. He couldn’t deny that. Gungande was a fiercely powerful weapon. Even now he felt its power, tucked away in that other space that he stored it in. He felt it hunger for battle. At least he thought it did. It might just be him. Or Othr awakening within him. He feared that if he used too much of Othr’s magic, or learned too much from his Conscience, that he would then become Othr. Perhaps that is what Conscience meant by bringing him back. But Winter also knew that he needed these things. Without them he was just some confused kid way beyond his depth. He was probably that anyway. But the only way to change that was acting the part.
“Corporal”, said Winter, addressing Bala. “Please educate me about your magic. Would it cost much energy to do a scan for enemies?”
“Not at all, sir”, said Bala, reflexively adding the honorific. No matter his strangeness and family connections, the youth was polite. Bala couldn’t fault him in that. Respect given deserved respect returned. “It is one of the more simple spells. Running it continuously is probably not advised unless the situation warrants it, but I can do it fairly frequently without even tapping into the strategic mana reserve.”
“Thank you, Corporal”, said Winter. “The lack of visibility worries me. If you can do a scan it would put my heart at ease.”
“As you wish!” said Bala. He made a few gestures and small pinpricks of light appeared on his palm. His brow furrowed.
Winter leaned closer. “What is revealed?” he asked.
“This is us here”, said Bala, pointing to a pair of dots at the base of his palm. “I did the simple version of the spell that only detects souls, so your compatriots do not appear, since they have spirits.”
“But there is one over there”, said Winter, indicating a small mote near his ring finger.
“Yes”, said Bala. “Probably an enemy scout. Certainly not one of ours. That would show up.”
Winter grunted, and looked into the gloom. “That way?” he asked, pointing to one side of their path.
“Yes”, said Bala. “About three hundred paces.”
Winter nodded. He spread his hands and there was suddenly a large heavy spear in them. He hefted it a few times and found a level patch of ground. He paced forward and back a few times then sank into a crouch, concentrating. Tensing, he took three great strides and, with a fierce cry, threw the spear into the night.
The others watched astonished as the thick spear rocketed out of his hands with super-human speed and disappeared into the night. It was quiet for a moment and then there was a clap of thunder.
Bala glanced down at his hand again and raised his eyebrows. “It’s gone.” He nodded at Winter. “Impressive.”
Winter smiled smugly and put his hands on his hips. “I’ve got a few tricks…” he started. Then he yelped as Gungande returned, imbedding itself in the ground at his feet and throwing sand in all directions. The magpie cawed.
When the sand settled the spear was gone, and Winter just stood there looking sheepish.
“I would suggest”, said Bala, “that we press on as best we can while they can’t see us. The scout will be missed.”
Winter nodded, and signaled to his troops. They headed out, arrayed around the carriage.
“There’s quite a few”, said Bala. “Spread out around us.”
A few hours had passed. They had made good time, but were still not close to the 33rd encampment yet. The wind had died down to occasional gusts and the terrain became more sandy than rocky.
The scout had been replaced by fleeting shadows. Distant, but paralleling their tracks. First on one side, then another. At first Winter tried to sortie out to confront them. But they quickly withdrew. Suspecting a trap, Winter did not pursue or get too far away from the main body. But the trap had come anyway.
From the light on Bala’s hand there were at least two dozen adversaries spread evenly around them. They were closing quickly on their position.
“Get together”, cried Winter. “Let’s make a stand here rather than pressing on.” He jumped up on top of baggage and looked out into the night. The Tritons readied themselves, spread out in a rough circle.
“One hundred paces”, called out Bala. “Let’s even the odds a bit.” He had been building a small mana reservoir, and now emptied it with a few words. Motes of light shot out from him and cascaded over the landscape bathing it all in a shadowless light.
Multiple figures could be seen running, hell bent, towards them. Winter cried out and flung his spear at one, blasting it to fragments. However, no sooner than the echo of the thunderclap, each advancing creature threw their own spear. Although the distance was long, their accuracy was uncanny. Several bounced against the shield Bala had projected around them, but the Tritons were not so protected and about half of them went down.
Winter screamed again, and leapt down from the carriage. The nearest monsters were closing. They had barbed bone clubs, held ready in shrunken emaciated hands. Gungande was in Winter’s hands once more and he lunged at one. The creature evaded him, though, backpedaling. Winter jumped after it, and then realized it had drawn him into fighting three of them at once. He swore as they quickly circled him. He spun in place, trying to threaten each one of them with the spear, but they dodged in and out, alternately evading and harassing him.
With an angry shout, Winter slammed the butt of the spear into the ground and sent a shock wave rippling out around him. The Forsaken were knocked from their feet, and he used the chance to dash between them and back to the carriage.
Bala floated above the ground now, protected on all sides by his magical barrier. He was busy healing or resurrecting Tritons as fast as they fell. Makaira and a few others were holding their own, backs to the carriage almost directly under Bala. Everywhere else there was carnage.
Near panic, Winter ran to the nearest, and blasted another Forsaken that was about to skewer one of Cindarina’s handmaidens, Nacre he thought. She thrust past him, stabbing another attacker who had been working up to pound Winter’s skull in from behind. He whirled and thrust at it, the impact sending the undying creature flying out of sight.
“There’s no up!” shouted Nacre at Winter, as she looked desperately around. Winter furrowed his brow in confusion. “We can’t swim up!” she clarified. “It’s like fighting stuck in mud. We don’t stand a chance.”
Then Winter understood. Fighting in water was three dimensional. You could swim above or under an opponent as well as around them. Even something as elementary as herding fish required maneuvering in all dimensions. Here, the magic they were given to survive just converted their locomotion into the surface equivalent. It was only two dimensional. All the tactics, moves and forms they knew just didn’t translate.
“Bala!” Winter shouted. Then he was knocked aside. A Forsaken had leapt at him while he wasn’t looking and Nacre had pushed him out of the way, taking the spear in her back. Winter screamed at the grinning undead and shot a bolt of lightning out of his spear, incinerating it.
That had gotten Bala’s attention at least. “Corporal”, he shouted again, over the din. “They need to swim!” Bala looked confused. Winter shook his head. He was letting the gulf between the surface and the Underwater get to him. This is what he needed Cindarina for. He scrabbled up on top of the carriage, getting closer to Bala.
“My people”, he started again. “They need to be able to fly. Like they do underwater. They can’t move like they are used to if they just stuck on the ground.”
Realization dawned on Bala’s face. He withdrew for a moment, summoning up additional energy. Glowing phrases appeared around him and linked together. With another wave the assembly was complete and a bright blue tinged light arced out, grounding itself in each Triton. Each was jolted back on their feet, hauled three times their height into the air, and left floating there, as if in ambient water.
Bala smiled. “It’s a little tricky, stringing sub clauses together like that. But it is more efficient.”
“To me! To me!” cried Winter.
The disorientated Tritons got their bearings, and began to swim towards Winter. A few spears shot into the air, impaling the regrouping warriors. But other Tritons came to their aid, diving, swooping and stabbing at any Forsaken that had something that could be thrown.
Winter shot volley after volley of lightning into any creature that was within the illuminated radius. In short order the Forsaken were either down, or had retreated into the darkness.
It was a subdued regrouping around the carriage. Makaira did a quick count to make sure he had brought them all back. He nodded to Winter. “All here.”
Winter took a deep breath. “How much further?” he asked Bala.
“Several more hours”, said Bala, without enthusiasm.
Winter grimaced. “Hopefully we’ll acquit ourselves better next time.”
The sun rose over the edge of the desert with unnatural speed. As soon as it did, the temperature began to climb steadily upwards. Winter sat on a rock looking out into the waste. Next to him was a tent just inside the perimeter of the 33rd army’s camp where all the Tritons were sleeping. He was tired too, but also unsettled.
He kept replaying the battles of the night in his mind. Mostly they were filled with his friends dying and him doing too little too late about it. Sure, Romitu magic kept them on their feet, and in the light of day there were no fewer in the company. They had lost no one. Just gained grisly memories.
“Ah, Winter. You are still awake”, said a voice. Winter turned and Bala stood there. His uniform was clean and he showed no signs of tiredness.
“As are you”, said Winter.
Bala laughed. “We have a thing called compressed sleep. It helps to keep up.”
Winter nodded, unenthusiastically. “What news?”
Bala looked more serious. “After you and your troops rest up, I’ll be escorting you to your next duty.”
“And what is that?” asked Winter.
“I don’t know. I just have orders to teleport you to the 22nd army and to work from their duty roster.”
Winter’s shoulders sagged. “Did my Mother order that?” he asked.
Bala shook his head. “It’s not her place to order the disposition of troops. This came to me directly from the General of the 33rd.”
Winter threw a rock at the ground. “I thought the whole point of escorting those goods by ground instead of teleporting was to save mana. And now we’re teleporting us?”
Bala sighed. He paused a moment before saying quietly, “We used more mana keeping your troops alive than it would have taken to teleport the goods to begin with.”
Winter rubbed his forehead. “We did pretty badly, didn’t we? So now we’re being given token service. Right?”
Bala shrugged and sat on the rock next to him. “You have an amazingly powerful weapon. But you don’t know how to use it.” Winter bristled. “No, no”, said Bala. “I do not mean to insult. We all feel like that.”
Winter looked at him confused. “What do you mean?”
Bala nodded his head from side to side. “I have the new magic. The soldiers have these fantastic swords and armor. The generals have their gates.” He covered the whole camp with a sweep of his arms. “We have all of this. But these barbarians who aren’t even alive are running rings around us. They only have stone weapons, but they have skill and experience.”
“You should see how much mana the 33rd is blowing through keeping its troops alive”, said Bala, with a short laugh. “It’s a problem.”
“What about the other armies?” asked Winter.
“It’s like this all over”, said Bala. “It’s causing a problem and up and down the chain of command. Except for the 22nd.”
“The 22nd?” said Winter. “The Orcish army.”
“Yes, General Porterhouse”, said Bala. “They’ve reached some sort of strange détente with The Forsaken.”
“I thought they didn’t negotiate at all”, said Winter.
“The Orcs or the Forsaken?” asked Bala, smiling. “Who would have thought? Seems they found common ground in heroic challenges. As I’ve heard it each side takes turns challenging the other to a battle of heroes.”
“Single combat?” said Winter, in surprise. “Between armies?”
“So they say”, said Bala.
They sat for a while in silence. Winter took a deep breath, held it, and then released it. “Then I guess I know what have to do.” Bala cocked his eyebrow at him. Winter stood up and formally bowed. “Thank you for being honest with me. Please thank your General for giving the Northern Seas an opportunity to repay the service Romitu has given us. Once my troops have rested I think we will wrap up our service to Romitu.”
Bala got up as well. “There are still many ways you and your troops can be helpful.”
Winter shook his head. “Thank you, but no. I don’t want to be a burden on the system.”
“If you are sure then?” said Bala.
Winter nodded decisively.
“Very well then”, said Bala. He saluted, and strode back into camp.
After Bala left, Winter took a walk around the perimeter of the camp. He got a number of odd looks. Only fair since he was wearing a loincloth, cape and bird rather than standard military kit. But he certainly wasn’t a Forsaken and no one challenged him.
“So I pretty much suck as the son of a battle god”, said Winter.
“I can’t argue that”, said Conscience. “That was some pretty amateur fighting back there.”
“Gee, thanks”, said Winter.
“I’m your conscience, not your pep team”, said the bird.
“I know exactly what you are”, said Winter, scornfully. “You’re his conscience, not my conscience. It’s my conscience that’s telling me not to ask you things.”
“Oh?” said the magpie. “I have a rival?”
“You’re a cheat”, said Winter. “He used you to cheat his way out of the great oath. Now he’s trying to use you to cheat death. You just want to bring him back.”
“I told you before, that I wasn’t built to want anything”, said Conscience.
“Yeah, right”, said Winter. He marched on for a while more in silence. “But I can’t see a way forward that doesn’t involve bringing him back.”
“Oh, well, then”, said Conscience, with mock cheer, “Let’s get about it then.”
“No”, said Winter.
The black and white bird hopped from one foot to another. “Make your mind up!”
“I just want you to tell me more information, like you did with the spear”, said Winter.
It ruffled its feathers. “Fine. What do you want to know?”
“Hmm”, said Winter. “Tell me everything he knew about fighting, about leading, and about training.”
Winter’s pace slowed as he felt icy tendrils start to seep into his mind.
“Are you sure?” asked the bird coyly. “That’s rather a lot. You know that he was a battle god. That’s kind of his specialty.”
Winter grit his teeth. “I know. And I know it’s just going to make me more like him and less like me.”
“No comment”, said the bird.
“Just do it.”
Makaira blinked away as the light from the setting sun angled into the tent. The heat was outrageously uncomfortable, as just about everything else on the surface. He heard a few of his companions stirring around them. They must have slept through the whole day. Not surprising, given the beating they’d taken.
He knew he should get up, and be firm and resolute. Several of the others were wavering. He could tell they were coming around to the thought that this whole misadventure was a bad idea. They were right. But not taking the opportunity was a worse idea. Even if they all died, it was a statement that could not be ignored and would do their people well. Makaira smiled at himself. He’d actually lost count of how many times he had died last night.
With that he sat up. How many times would he die tonight? It didn’t matter. He would follow Winter to the end. It is what he had to do for his people.
And, right before him, sat Winter. Back resting against the central pole holding up this thing they called a tent.
Winter’s eyes flickered open and he smiled. “Are you rested now?”
“As well as can be”, said Makaira. “Did you sleep?”
“Some”, said Winter. “Enough.” He rose stiffly to his feet. With the conversation, everyone else had come awake, or at least acknowledged they were already awake.
Winter moved between them. Speaking words of greeting, encouragement and thanks. Makaira watched him closely. Something had changed. He was confident, assured, and self-possessed. Last night when they threw themselves down, he was withdrawn and sullen. Everyone knew it had been a disaster. Romitu was not going to be impressed and they were unlikely to get a second chance. But now, he was getting everyone up and motivated.
Perhaps the change had started. Maybe some of the Forsaken had recognized him for who he was. Could the word be spreading amongst them now? Was their belief driving this change? Was his father emerging from him? That damnable bird on his shoulder stared straight at Makaira. Doubtless it knew. But doubtless it wasn’t going to tell Makaira.
“Is everyone ready for some food?” asked Winter, cheerily. “It’s kind of gross on the surface. They mostly eat burnt stuff. I’d stay away from that. Anything that’s a plant, or looks raw should be fine. Eat as much as you can stomach. I’ll see if they can pack up extra to take with us.”
They started to file out of the tent good naturedly. Makaira came last, alongside of Winter. “Take with us where?” he asked.
Winter smiled sideways at him. “You caught that, did you?”
“I certainly did”, said Makaira. “Did we get new orders?”
“Yes we did”, said Winter. They had started walking toward the main compound. “But I didn’t like them. So I came up with my own ones.”
“Isn’t that… frowned upon?” asked Makaira hesitantly.
“Well, it would be, if we were under their command”, said Winter, unconcerned. “But as of sunset tonight, we end our formal service to Romitu.”
“I see”, said Makaira. “And where do we go after that?”
“We walk out of this camp, and into legend”, proclaimed Winter.
Makaira walked in silence for a moment. “I will be the first to follow you”, he said.
Winter looked over at him. And all pretention from his expression was gone. It was the youth Makaira remembered from court. “Thank you Makaira”, he said. “It does mean a lot to me.”
“Keep close together”, cautioned Winter to his troops. They continued at an easy trot over the rough terrain. He led them directly towards the heart of the Black Hole. A gibbous moon hung overhead giving them a fair amount of light to navigate by. Winter kept them to the soft sandy bits where possible, and where the terrain might hide them.
“Nacre”, Winter called to her, seeing her head dart around suddenly. “What did you hear?”
She continued to listen intently. “I heard some rocks tumble. It may have been ones we disturbed.”
“It may have been”, said Winter. “What do you think?”
“I think we have picked up a tail”, she said. He nodded to her to elaborate. “Twice we have definitely seen Forsaken. Given how fast they fell on us before when we discouraged their scout, it would only make sense for them to keep tabs on us.”
“But”, said Winter, “given their tenacity, why haven’t they mobilized a unit to attack us yet? It’s been much longer than last time.”
Nacre thought. Now that they were on their own, free of obligations and baggage, Winter was treating the whole thing like a classroom. He varied between sounding like an old fish herder passing on knowledge to a bunch of sprats, and sounding like Penelope lecturing them on Triton architecture. “I do not know”, Nacre finally admitted.
Winter nodded. “That’s fine. You do not have complete information. Let me add to that.” He picked a direction and waved them into motion again. “What I was able to learn when we visited the mess tent was that The Forsaken have broken into four main raiding parties. This means two things.” Winter counted on his fingers. “First, there are going to be fewer of them in the center. I figure they’ve little nostalgia for their prison and it’s probably stripped of resources. Second, at worse the four divisions mean four separate chains of command. At best they mean mutually antagonistic factions. Either way, by steering a course right along the boundary of the two groups, and straight for the middle of their territory, I figured we should meet minimal resistance.”
Heads around him nodded. Smiles flickered over faces. They gained a spring in their step. Winter watched this closely. It was almost like when he had finished an intense body language lesson from his mother. For a moment, it was as if he could read people’s minds. But then he forgot.
Not this time. Whatever knowledge Conscience had put in his brain had stuck. He could see and gauge each of these people. He had known them all his life, but only distantly. Now he felt like he had been best friends with each and every one of them for a lifetime. He could sense when his instructions sunk in, and when they did not. Alternative explanations just floated to the surface. Just from the way they tensed their muscles, he could predict how they would react to any force around them.
It was time to test that out.
He looked to the terrain. In a similar way, he saw the land differently now. Each feature leaped out at him with the knowledge of how many could hide behind it, the best way to align forces with it, and how it might be used tactically.
At least three people were tailing them. Two together, and one separately. The two had sent off a runner who had returned, so he also knew reinforcements would be on their way. Some of this he knew through obvious clues like when they stepped on loose rocks he placed. Other information was just derived from what made sense given the terrain and positioning.
There was going to be a confrontation. Better he chooses when and where, rather than leave it up to them. He ran up a nearby ridge and scanned the surroundings. Just a bit ahead he saw the perfect spot. It was built for ambushes. And, if they headed directly towards it, there was no way the enemy could resist ambushing them there. If everything he had been told was true, they had probably ambushed people there countless times over the centuries.
“Over this way”, said Winter, rejoining the group. “And lets slow down a bit and have a walking rest. Pass around the water.”
His troops did so and he smiled. They were bait. They all were. And he was going to dangle himself right in front of their noses in the most tempting way possible. If he created an irresistible opportunity, he knew exactly how his enemy would react.
Something stirred within Winter at the thought of the upcoming battle. A day ago he would have been anxious and threatened by placing his friends in danger. He was their liege; their protector. It was his job to protect them by putting himself in harm’s way, not them. But his horizon had expanded. His vision now saw beyond the immediate next move. Looking at it that way, to enable them to protect themselves tomorrow, he had to put them in danger today. The more controlled the situation, the less real risk there was. And the better learning opportunity it presented.
When the attack finally came, Winter was almost disappointed in the predictability of it. With a quick command he sent the main body of Tritons into close formation to the side. That evaded the main volley of light spears. A cast from his own spear deflected two more and a mid-air kick from him intercepted the last.
Wasting no time the Forsaken charged from several directions. Some with clubs, others with spears. Winter quickly worked out those that were the major threats, and those that had some infirmity or injury that was holding them back. He feinted towards the second most dangerous cluster and leaped to attack the most dangerous one.
Two quick strokes lowered the most dangerous threat several notches, and a blast of lightning furthered the dispersal of the number two problem. He ducked and rolled back to see how his troops were doing.
They held together like a finely crafted puzzle. Winter had placed the least likely to bolt in the positions that were easiest to flee from and the less doughty in their shelter. Consequently they kept the strongest advice he had given them: stick together.
The Forsaken who had made it that far were harassing them soundly, but there were, roughly, three tridents to each spear, and they were holding their own, to their surprise.
Winter wormed between combatants like they were standing still. A thrust to cut sinew here, slowing the hell bent attacks of one. Grabbing another with the barbs of his spear there, throwing off where the warrior thought it was going to be just enough to create an opening for the Tritons to take advantage of. Then, he dialed Gungande up to full extension and took out one of the shambling horrors twenty feet away, giving pause to the others closing in.
With a strong voice Winter started to sing. It was a simple song celebrating the return of the mackerel season. He’s never sung it before, but he had heard it often enough. It was a happy song celebrating simple pleasures. It fit how he felt. Culling the warriors before him just enough to provide a challenge to his troops, but not a threat, was simple. Seeing his people put his lessons into action, and their skills and self-confidence blossom was a pleasure. The song reassured them. If their commander had time, energy and confidence to sing, then everything must be going right.
And everything did go right. The tide turned several times. Whenever the Tritons got the upper hand, Winter withdrew a little more, tilting things back in favor of the Forsaken. And, creating one irresistible opportunity after another, the undead warriors didn’t break and run at any point. They always did seem to be on a verge of winning. Winter sensed they were well used to battling to the last fighter anyway.
Finally, where there were but three left, Winter strode back into the center and offered them the right of single combat. He didn’t speak their language, but he didn’t have to. They understood each other well enough.
Winter surveyed his troops and chose the three he thought would learn most from the experience. Like an instructor at a martial arts academy, he conducted each fight. He did not intervene, except just as a Triton was about to receive a fatal blow. Then, with a jab of Gungande he spoiled the shot. But, in fairness, he declared the Forsaken the winner and let it run off with a salute. Two Tritons lost in this way but since they had acquitted themselves well, there was no shame in it. They all seemed buoyed by the experience and a cheer went up from them when the field was clear.
“Good job my friends”, praised Winter, “Good job.” He beamed at them and clashed his spear against each of their tridents in triumph. “Let’s take to that promontory over there and take a break. You all deserve it.”
Food was passed around, and more water. Drinking was a bit of a novelty to them, and they were as happy to just splash it over themselves. Since they were the magic water skins of Romitu, there was no end to it. They all talked animatedly about the battle and congratulated each other on the maneuvers they had performed.
Winter ran them through, step by step, how it had progressed from start to finish. Each clash and exchange of blows he commented on, praising good moves, but always suggesting better ones. He confessed to setting them up, but they readily forgave him.
They were his now. Winter saw that through and through. Before, many of them would have done what he asked. But out of a fatalistic sense of duty and hope. But now they did not hope any more. They believed in him. Completely and without reservation.
A small part of Winter felt dirty. He had manipulated them into this. Was it really honest if it was so constructed? But the greater part of him felt that he had given them real experiences. And what they felt as a result of that was as real as it could get.
For the first time since ascending the throne of the Northern Seas, he really felt like it was his. Before he had striven to do his duty and the best for his foster people. But always with the knowledge that, when really put to the test, he would not be up to it. Bullied and beaten for most of his life, kept from his mother and mostly ignored by a foster father, he was just not the right material. But now, he had taken a group of his people, equally unsuited to the task set them, and helped them succeed at it. That’s what a leader did. And it felt good doing it.
All he had to do was to keep doing it.
Arnhvatr stood on the dusty plain, awaiting the arrival of the Hero.
It hadn’t taken long for word to reach him. Scouts told of a body of warriors advancing from the Black Hole, and how all fell before them. It took slightly longer for some better scouts to bring more clarity. There were twelve troops, of an odd and unusual sort. They had looted Romitu gear, but bore no flag or insignia of that nation. They were led by what looked like a young human with a mighty spear, and a bird on his shoulder.
He was puzzled and uncertain as to how they could be coming from the heart of the Black Hole until this morning, when a liaison party informed him that the party had been sighted on the other side, in the vicinity of the 33rd army. So, clearly, this little troop was not from the Black Hole. Since there was precious little reason to go into the Black Hole, he had to assume they were coming directly here, to him.
What to make of that?
Perhaps it was someone seeking to fight in the challenge games he had set up. From the reports of the fighting, the Hero was quite skilled. That would certainly make for an interesting encounter.
But would it perturb his plans?
In the distance Arnhvatr could see the Orcs assembling on the war field. His absence would be noted, and they would likely be confused by this change in their regular arrangement. They would probably wait to see what was up. They were a good natured foe. Arnhvatr was almost coming to like them. Their attitude towards combat was fresh, honorable and exuberant. Unlike the jaded, cynical, and tiresomely vicious practice that the art had been degraded to after eons in the Black Hole. It was a nice diversion while his plans played out.
But this Hero was not in Arnhvatr’s plans. He wasn’t sure how this would perturb things. The fact he carried a weapon of power was notable. It would be a fine trophy to capture should the challenge go his way. That it was a spear, his best weapon, could be coincidental. But the bird on his shoulder, especially a black and white bird, was pushing the limit of what could be a coincidence. But reports painted him to be a youngster, not an old fellow. If he knew of their legends, and was trying to impersonate them to be impressive, that was one detail they got wrong.
They approached now and Arnhvatr watched closely. Indeed, as described, a pale young man with long black hair, and a sable cloak strode with confident steps over the field directly towards him. Around him twelve others glided with odd, almost flying motions. They too had confidence, but their confidence was in their leader, not themselves. He judged them not to be of consequence.
Arnhvatr walked six paces in front of his hand-picked lieutenants and waited.
Winter was pleased to have successfully navigated his way across the Black Hole with only a glance at a map. It had been helpful, but, really, the terrain dictated things far more clearly. The best place to advance and the best place to battle were written in the stones. He just had to read and follow.
And here were the Forsaken troops. And beyond them, the banners of the 22nd flew high. He could see the Orcs arrayed upon the battle field, and if he wasn’t mistaken, he was pretty sure the one with the wildest array of colors was probably General Porterhouse himself.
But before them was another group. In the daylight the unliving emaciated bodies of the Forsaken looked almost like mummies. All dried skin and sinew, where the armor didn’t cover. But even at rest, they stood like warriors. Observant, aware, watching his steps to get a sense of his rhythm and weaknesses.
Before them all stood one. He wasn’t taller than the rest, he just seemed so. He stood, agile as a cat in both body and mind. His weapons and armor were clearly battle trophies, as they looked to be of Romitu manufacture. Daubed on the surface, though, was a single stick figure, like the writing on Gungande. That reassured Winter. It meant he was in the right place.
He motioned the Tritons to stop roughly the same distance as the Forsaken leader’s bodyguard, and he walked six measured paces and stopped two sword lengths, and one step, from him.
Then Winter realized he didn’t really know what to say. He didn’t even know how to say it. He doubted the Forsaken had time to learn their language.
His heart sank within him and he really wished Cindarina was here. Bravado was only going to carry him so far. What would she do? And then, the first step was obvious.
“Conscience”, thought Winter at the bird. “Can you teach me how to read, write and speak the language of these people?”
The stab of cold into his mind was contemptuous. Winter winced, but as he blinked away the pain, he suddenly knew the letter of the man’s chest was for the sound of an A. Arnhvatr! Thinking back on what the Forsaken they had cowed said, that name came out several times. Knowing the language now he knew it to be in the form of a name, and with an honorific. That must be who this is.
“Greetings”, started Winter, hoping his knowledge of the language would catch him off guard. But the man showed no surprise. Maybe he should have asked Conscience for a rundown of their customs as well. But he feared learning too much. Already he felt very unlike himself when fighting. The more he adsorbed, the deeper he feared his own will was submerged.
“Greetings”, replied the man, cautiously. “What business brings you to this field of battle?”
“I’ve come to stop it”, said Winter. That got him a raised eyebrow. Or, at least, the faced moved in that way. Only the faintest wisps of hair covered the desiccated skin.
“My troops are strong, and cover the field from end to end.” Arnhvatr gestured with his arms. “We have been waiting for this fight for quite some time. Those of Romitu cover the other end, and stand before us.” He shook his head. “It seems unlikely that your twelve warriors can come between us.”
Winter bit his lip and thought. In the distance he could see that a delegation from the 22nd had broken from the line and was heading in this direction. He tried to think to his conversation with Swan. What was the common ground?
“And, yet, you do not do battle”, said Winter. “I’ve been told that, day by day, challenges are fought by few and watched by many. If your thirst for battle is so strong and is so inevitable, why has it not been joined?”
Arnhvatr folded his arms and stroked his chin with his hand. “If you are here to put a stop to the fighting, why would you object to the slow pace of the challenges?”
Winter grinned wryly. He guessed you didn’t rise to be the leader of a band like this without being smart. This was not a weapon’s form he was going to win. Time to play his trump card.
With a smooth gesture, Winter summoned Gungande and drove its butt into the ground, causing a minor earth tremor. “I command you as your god!”
The sudden motion caused Arnhvatr’s retainers to drop into a crouch and ready their weapons. But Arnhvatr himself didn’t even flinch. “I see you have Gungande, and the unlucky magpie”, he said. Winter gave a sidelong look at Conscience. “This is most curious. They say only the Battle Master can wield that spear. But, none the less, possession alone does not make you a god. And even if you were that god, you would not be our god. We were forsaken long ago.”
Winter chewed his lip and nodded. “Fair enough”, he said. “But I am the son of Othr.” Arnhvatr looked at him skeptically. “After being stripped of his lands and his people he wandered alone for many years. My mother found him, bedded him, and then put him out of his misery.”
Arnhvatr snorted. “Sounds like I should be talking to the mother, and not the whelp.”
Winter bristled, but willed himself under control. “If it matters”, he said, “Othr did not forsake you in the end. It was the rest of the gods that handed down an impossible sentence.”
“It does not matter”, said Arnhvatr. “We served our time, guilty or not.”
“And that time is over”, said Winter. “Why not…” He was interrupted by a sudden blast that knocked them all down. He quickly jumped to his feet as blue crystal began to grow up from the ground around his legs.
“Release my son, you washed out old child abuser!” screamed Devonshire. She had come up with the Orcish delegation and had leaped to the attack as soon as she saw Winter. “Release your hold over him and get back where your Soul belongs!”
“Mother!” shouted Winter, over the roaring of the spell. He slewed Gungande around trying to deflect the antagonistic magic and reverse the binding blue crystals. “Stop it! You’re embarrassing me!”
The magic cut off suddenly. Devonshire stood there, shocked, staring at him.
“It’s just me”, Winter said, chipping at the crystals.
She narrowed her eyes. “Is this a trick?” she said hesitantly. “No. I don’t think anyone could mimic your body language that well.”
Winter rolled his eyes. “Cast a spell or something. Whatever. I didn’t break the Soul barrier. It’s just…” he looked at Conscience. “It’s this bird that’s been sending those dreams. Just like Grave Keeper, Othr cheated. The bird remembered for him, and now it’s telling me what it knows.”
Devonshire took a deep breath. “I…” She waved her hands and the crystals disappeared. “I’m so sorry!”
Winter shook his head. “It’s OK”, he said, although his body language shouted otherwise.
“Did you call her ‘mother’?” asked Arnhvatr, looking at Devonshire with astonishment. Despite the difference in years, the word was nearly the same in both languages.
“Yes. That’s my mom”, said Winter, sarcastically.
“She thought you were the Battle God, and still attacked you single handedly?” asked Arnhvatr.
Winter shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Arnhvatr moved closer and whispered, “Does she have a husband?”
“What’s he saying?” asked Devonshire.
Winter rubbed his forehead. “I think he wants to date you.”
Devonshire lurched forward and gave Arnhvatr a slap across the face. He stepped back, holding his stinging face. “Tell him to grow a pair first”, she growled. “And some skin, hair and everything else while he’s at it.”
“Cast a language spell and tell him yourself!” said Winter, in irritation.
They were all interrupted by a loud guffaw. Both Devonshire and Arnhvatr staggered as General Porterhouse slapped both of them across the back. He seemed to try to say something, but broke out in thundering laughing again.
Arnhvatr smiled weakly in greeting. Then looked aside to Winter. “Is there any way to stop him doing that?” he asked in a low voice.
Winter stuck out his lower lip. “Not that anyone’s worked out.”
“Well met friends!” Porterhouse was finally able to get out. “This meeting worth fine cask of Gartican wine. Let’s go tourney field and drink!” He repeated “Drink!” to Arnhvatr in the Northland language and gestured to a pavilion.
“Why not”, said Winter. “This morning’s a loss anyway.”
They all drank Porterhouse’s wine in the pavilion set out by the tournament field while he held forth, at length, about Devonshire’s battle prowess. He told tales for the battle to overthrow the demon Halphas, and the initial skirmishes with the gods of Romitu. And several more from the re-conquering of the known world for Romitu under General Scioni. Devonshire mostly demurred, or corrected him when he went too wildly over the top.
The wine was a fair vintage. Not truly exceptional, but about as good as you would want to drink watered down in the morning. The troops stood by politely in the hot sun, none on either side questioning the situation.
Winter glanced with concern at his Tritons. They were not regular troops and, on top of that, were not used to the harsh sunshine. He was trying to work out how to interrupt the tidal wave of Porterhouse’s monolog and suggest that they might share some of the wine with the troops. In doing so he noticed Arnhvatr watching him. Still trying for that point of connection, he deliberately caught his eyes, and glanced out at the troops, and down at the wine. Arnhvatr nodded slightly, and then looked pointedly at Porterhouse, and back to Winter. Winter guessed the ball was in his court.
Porterhouse was all caught up in a graphic depiction of a night attack on their encampment, where Devonshire, who had already exhausted her personal mana, ended up running around completely naked slashing at all the raiders with sword and tongue. His mother was rolling her eyes and feebly protesting. Winter throught back to the basics his mother had tried to teach him about non-verbal communication. He drew a sharp breath, slightly covering his mouth like he was stifling a yawn. She leaned slightly towards him and tilted her head just a fraction to one side. Well, at least he had her attention. He placed one finger on the side of his cheek in their signal for ‘this conversation is over’.
Abruptly Devonshire gave a hoarse throated scream and stamped her feet alternately on the ground. She looked, for all intents and purposes, like a child having a tantrum. “Stop now! Stop now!” she cried. Porterhouse cut off in mid-sentence, stunned. “Morning gone. No fighting! Enough blah-blah-blah. Must not waste soldier time.” She had even adopted Porterhouse’s abbreviated grammar. “Either fight, or do battle.”
“Yes”, said Porterhouse. “I shut up now.” He seemed totally nonplussed about it all.
Devonshire turned to look at Winter, putting him on the spot.
“Yes, well, thank you, General Porterhouse, for filling in Arnhvatr, here, on some of Magister Devonshire’s personal history”, Winter said, to stall for time. He knew the conversation had been going nowhere, but now he didn’t really know where to take it. He wished, yet again, that Cindarina was here. But she wasn’t. He would just have to take the bull by the horns himself.
“Arnhvatr” he said, turning to the undead leader. “I do not see the profit in this war. It aids no one. Is there any way I can compel you to stop?” He expected a simple ‘no’, but, instead, Arnhvatr spent several moments considering.
“Your… fiends… here have been intent on stopping it by offering challenges. When they win, we stop for a day”, said Arnhvatr.
Winter nodded. “If I challenge you and win, will you stop for good?”
“You do not wear the badge of Romitu. You are not one of the fighting parties, are you?” said Arnhvatr. Winter nodded. “Then you cannot come between the two of us.”
“Might I challenge your right to lead?” asked Winter.
Arnhvatr stiffened, and then smiled. “Our leadership is usually determined by violence, though not normally so formally.” He nodded. “But some of us prefer the formality. If you so dare, I would not deny the fight to you.”
“You are not afraid then to face a god?” asked Winter. “Or, at least, the son of a god?”
Arnhvatr smiled at him wickedly. “You may have Othr’s spear, and you may have Othr’s counsel, but I have been dead longer than Othr was alive. I think I have the edge on experience. Do you dare?”
Winter smiled thinly and tried not to show his nervousness. “I’m not sure I dare not to.” He looked about at the troops. “I would hate to see them lose a great commander.”
“If there is naught to be learned by the wonton destruction wrought by the gods in attempting to obliterate my people, it is that disputes are sometimes best settled by proxies”, said Arnhvatr.
Winter looked at him intently. Unlike the ravaging monsters the other Forsaken had been, this commander was very clear and determined. Winter wasn’t quite sure what he was up to. But he had a sense that he had a goal, and that everything he was doing here was towards that goal. This ‘delaying’ with the battle of champions. Even talking to Winter. Whatever it was, Winter figured he was probably right, that hundreds of years of fighting and leading gave him a staggeringly high tactical advantage. This was not Winter’s strong point. No matter what happened, it would almost certainly play to Arnhvatr’s advantage.
But, something deep inside of him liked this Arnhvatr. Winter had seen all shapes and sizes of creatures in the Underwater. Some far uglier than the desiccated visage of Arnhvatr. And his twisted human features were probably hard for others like his mother and Porterhouse to get around, but his life had been largely free of human faces. He knew it was probably wrong, but something in him trusted Arnhvatr.
“Quite so”, said Winter. He might as well give into his play and see where it leaded. If trust was justified or not. “Do we each pick our strongest and send them to the field?”
“You are the challenger”, said Arnhvatr. “You should pick your most appropriate champion. I will, in turn, pick an appropriate match.”
Winter sat back in his chair. ‘Most appropriate’. The rephrasing was deliberate. He had no hope of reading Arnhvatr’s body language on this. But the look in his eye made it clear that this was Winter’s test. Arnhvatr was probably as good as Winter’s Othr fueled combat analysis. Whoever Winter picked, Arnhvatr would work out how good a fighter that was, and choose one to match it. Therefore his judgement of Winter would be pronounced in who he matched against Winter’s champion.
Then it came to him: it did not matter how good the fighter was. Arnhvatr could always pick someone who was better. What mattered was the style in which he fought. How appropriate he was to the fight. What Winter needed was someone with swagger, with bravado, who felt that he could win, no matter what the odds were.
“General Porterhouse”, said Winter, turning to him. “Has all of the 22nd army mustered? Including the civic workers?”
“Yes”, he said. “All who could hold a weapon. No use for those who can’t.”
“Good”, said Winter. “May I borrow one of them?”
A short while later the detail Porterhouse had sent out returned. They marched smartly across the field. Along with them marched Balanoptera, towering over them.
“Are you sure you know what you are doing?” Devonshire had asked Winter in simple Elvish after he made his request.
“No, not really”, said Winter.
“Well”, said Devonshire. “If it all goes to hell in a handbasket, I’ve got your back.” She looked wryly over at him. “Just try not to make me choose between loyalty to my son and loyalty to my liege.”
Winter smiled wryly back at her. “I’ll try mom.”
Balanoptera had been presented to General Porterhouse. He accepted his salute, ran him through a few drill commands. Then put him at ease.
“Foster brother”, said Winter, stepping forward. “I have a task fitting for a son of Atlantica. Are you up to it?”
Balanoptera stared at him in shock. Then several emotions passed over his face. First, it contorted into a sneer. But, before he could say something, he seemed to gain command over his reaction and moderated his expression. He glanced quickly over those assembled, then, intently, back at Winter. He let his face resume a semblance of a sneer again, but without as much malice.
“So, baby brother”, drawled Balanoptera. “Got yourself in trouble that a foster son of Atlantica couldn’t handle?”
Winter relaxed. The gamble had paid off. This wasn’t the spiteful bully in front of him. His mother had been right. Time in the army really had worked a change on him.
Winter shrugged expansively. “Well, I came here to knock some heads together. Had to challenge Arn here to do it.” He hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “But then they said I can’t fight the duel myself because I wear your father’s crown.”
“Huh”, said Balanoptera, exaggeratedly looking over Arnhvatr. “He doesn’t look so tough.” He flexed his mighty muscles. Then shrugged. “Well, if a promise was made on the crown of the Northern Seas, any Son of Altantica should be willing to stand up. OK, baby brother. I’ll bail you out again. Only…” he looked at him with mock warning, “You owe me one.”
“Thank you brother”, said Winter. For the first time in his life, he didn’t hate Balanoptera. He wasn’t sure he forgave him for the years of misery he had inflicted on him and many others. But at least he thought he someday might. “Make Dad proud.”
Winter stood next to Arnhvatr in the pavilion overlooking the combat field. An elaborately dressed Orcish herald bellowed out Balanoptera’s name, his lineage, his rank and his medals. The elaborate detail used with each was clearly highly embelished. But no one knew brash bluster better than the Orcs. Balanoptera preened visibly under the praise and pounded the ground and roared in counterpoint to the more grandly put accomplishments. The rank and file of the 22nd loved it and cheered their hero on mightily.
Arnhvatr’s champion was a massive hulk of a man. Not nearly as large as Balanoptera, but that would have been hard for any human. However, unlike the generally emaciated and withered frame that most Forsaken had, this hero seemed to be crafted entirely of muscle. They did not make any grand announcements, but did make a great show of choosing weapons. He picked up a lance, examined its straightness minutely, then hefting it between his hands. It bent easily and he threw it away with disgust and moved to the next one.
“This… Balanoptera… is your brother?” asked Arnhvatr, as they watched. “I do not see the family resemblance.”
“Foster brother”, said Winter.
“He fights for you gladly. You are close then?” continued Arnhvatr.
“No”, said Winter. He didn’t like this. But from what he could work out from quick whispered conversations with his mother, this had been the most any of the Forsaken had engaged with them beyond picking people to fight. If he was being judged, he might as well be straight spoken. It worked in the Underwater between very different cultures. It might work here. “We’ve always hated each other. I was fostered to the sea god to replace his daughter, whom my mother killed.”
Arnhvatr looked from Winter to Devonshire and back to Winter again. “Does your Mother make a habit of killing gods?”
“Only the ones that piss her off”, said Winter, grinning at Arnhvatr.
Arnhvatr nodded slowly. “I will bear that in mind.”
The two fighters faced off in the arena. There was some perfunctory ceremony from the Orcish herald and the Forsaken officiate and they withdrew, leaving the two combatants. They eyed each other warily for a while, judging stance and reaction. Then, Balanoptera adopted a casual stance, drew a deep breath and bellowed an incoherent roar.
The Forsaken looked a little surprised and tensed up, but there was no other move other than a smattering of applause from the Orcs. So, instead, he shook his spear and bellowed back.
Winter clapped politely. “Well, at least he has a sense of humor”, he said. “What was his name?” he asked Arnhvatr.
“Tabarus”, said Arnhvatr. “Not the brightest. But he’s the closest match to your champion for brawn.”
“Tabarus?” said Winter, rolling the sound around his tongue. “That doesn’t sound Norslander. Is it a nickname?”
“No”, said Arnhvatr. “He’s from Kemet.”
Winter looked surprised. “Do you have many Kemet fighters in your ranks?”
Arnhvatr turned from the circling fighters. “Do you think, after more than a thousand years, we would keep to the same petty divisions of our former lives?” he asked. “There may have been four armies of four nationalities at the start. But we were all wronged by our gods. We’re all Forsaken now.”
Winter was stunned. He had come here assuming that this division of the Forsaken was the Norslanders. The people of his father. That he would have some sway over them because of that relationship. He looked around at the Forsaken around him. He was no expert at human racial distinction. And their time cursed bodies were far from human norm. But a thousand years was a long time. What Arnhvatr said made sense. It was obvious in fact. Constant infighting probably meant constant back stabbing and changing loyalties.
“There are still four divisions of Forsaken”, said Winter, thinking it through. Given the animosity shown by the Forsaken he had run down on his march over here for this division, it was pretty clear they didn’t share one unifying command structure. “If you do not fight under one flag for creed or country, what do you fight for?”
Arnhvatr watched the fighting for a bit. Tabarus was not swift, but he was the swifter of the two. He darted in and out, jabbing at Balanoptera when the chance presented itself. Balanoptera satisfied himself with taking great thundering swipes and stamps, making the ground tremble.
“Each person fights for different reasons”, Arnhvatr said quietly. “Some fight because they have fought for so long. It was what they are good at and they seek to challenge themselves to do better and better. Others fight because they have fought for so long and do not know what else to do. There is no rest or respite in the Black Hole.”
“But they all fight for you”, said Winter, trying to draw him out.
“Yes”, said Arnhvatr, standing taller. “They fight for me. They do not do so because some god or general made me leader.” He made a deprecating gesture. “I was a raw recruit in the apocalypse. They fight for me because I lead them to victory. And because I do it in a way that suits their temperament.”
“The other leaders, then”, said Winter, “they fight differently?”
“As different as these two”, said Arnhvatr, pointing to the battle.
It was clear that Tabarus was the better fighter. His moves were precise and well thought out. Balanoptera had immense size and immense strength. But he also had some sort of instinctual cunning. There were several times when Tabarus set him up, Balanoptera fell for it, but right at the last minute he realized he was doomed and pulled something. Dust in the face, sweeping Tabarus’s feet out from under him, and even sitting on him at one point. Everyone was watching intently wondering if Tabarus would finally set up a situation that Balanoptera’s luck didn’t win him out of.
“Tabarus will win”, said Winter.
“Are you so certain?” said Arnhvatr.
“You would not pick someone who would lose”, said Winter.
“Your foster brother is not doing that badly”, pointed out Arnhvatr.
“You would not pick someone who would win easily”, said Winter. “You’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have.”
“If you knew you were going to lose, why did you fight?” asked Arnhvatr.
Winter looked straight back at him. “If I did not fight, I would also lose. Since losing is a foregone conclusion, it isn’t important. What is important is how I conduct myself down the path I have chosen.”
Arnhvatr looked at him very long and hard.
The end was a long time coming.
Tabarus managed to impale Balanoptera eventually. But with such mass and such blubber the blow was not immediately fatal. But now Tabarus had lost his weapon. When he reached for another one Balanoptera mocked him so fiercely that Tabarus abandoned it and fought on with just his fists. Several broken ribs and a crushed leg later, Balanoptera had lost so much blood he could only thrash around in the dirt while Tabarus beat repeatedly on his forehead. Since Tabarus could stand, and Balanoptera could not, the two officials declared the Forsaken the winner.
Arnhvatr and Winter entered the ring. The Forsaken leader passed his wine cup to Tabarus and sent him from the field. Winter bent over and waved his hand in front of Balanoptera’s unswollen eye. There was no reaction. A full squad of Orcs entered to lift him from the field.
“The fight was conducted fairly and with honor”, said Winter, loudly for those assembled. “I concede the victory to you.” He bowed. There was some polite clapping from the Orcs, led by Porterhouse.
Arnhvatr nodded in return. “You will not have the honor of leading my army today”, he said. “But your brother conducted himself well on your behalf and I promise you a position of honor within it.”
There was some more polite applause before Winter did a double take. “Wait, what?”
Arnhvatr looked at him in mock surprise. “Do you now remember the terms? You challenged my leadership. If you won, you would lead my army. Since you lost, you must serve my army.” Everyone all around the field went very quiet.
Winter swallowed heavily and his heart beat fast. The training Conscience had given him kicked in and his mind started generating possible attack options. In the corner of his vision he could see his Mother. It was subtle, but he knew enough magic to see that she had summoned a local reservoir of mana and was poised to unleash it, but was looking to him for guidance. He took a deep breath and pushed the rage deep down in him. That was not him. That was Othr’s soul, trying to break out. That was not him.
“Were the terms not clear?” asked Arnhvatr. He didn’t taunt, but he did defy him to say otherwise.
“The terms were not clear to me”, said Winter, slowly. “Given how your champion conducted himself on your behalf, I have to assume you are an honorable person and the terms were clear to you from the start.” He exchanged a glance with his Mother before continuing. “The fault is mine. I accept your interpretation of terms as fair.” He bowed his head. “How shall I serve your army?”
“As our god, of course”, said Arnhvatr.
Winter’s head snapped up. “What? Isn’t that what I first said?”
“No”, said Arnhvatr. “You wanted to command us as your worshipers. For us to serve you. To impose your will upon us.” He folded his arms. “I am commanding you to serve us as our god. For you to be the divine expression of our will.”
Winter looked at him wide eyed. This ancient horror had completely, thoroughly and utterly outfoxed him. He gave him what he came here seeking, but not at all in the way he sought it. He had heard the clerical debates between a god’s followers and the follower’s god. But he had always thought it was stupid semantics. They just wanted Othr back. But not the Othr who had forsaken them, but the one who had supported them.
Conscience chuckled dryly in his mind’s ear. “You should be more careful what you wish for.”
Winter blinked the moisture out of his eyes. He looked up to make sure his mother wasn’t going to do something rash. Her eyes brimmed the same as his. “So be it”, he said quietly.
Winter stood on top of a hillock next to the Forsaken camp, watching the bloody light of dawn color the sky. The wind was still and nothing stirred around him other than his thoughts.
The previous day, after Arnhvatr had tasked him to be their god, all the Forsaken had filed past him. Each had exchanged oaths with him. Him, to be their god, and them, to be his worshiper. The eyes of each had bored into him. And he remembered each and every one of them. He could recall all of their faces, even now. But not really their faces; their souls. He saw them as they were, living, dead, undead… it didn’t matter. He saw into their hearts.
All through the night he felt them. He stood here, above them all, and felt their soul, their will. His mother had explained to him, during the god war, that the Ævatar was a construct of great power, but no Will. It was the Will of the person inside of it that gave direction to its force. She said this to him as they watched it destroy virtually all of the gods that existed.
That’s what he felt like now. The Will of all of these Forsaken, his people, was pressing on him. The stars reeled overhead as he stood and the night passed. All their pain, their misery, their hate, and their anger flowed into him. It filled him until it became his own. Would he become a killing machine like the Ævatar? Was that their plan from the beginning? Did they want him to be their secret superweapon? Did he have no agency of his own, as a god?
But, no. All of the gods were once people. His mother had also told him of Gwendolyn. An Elf from a far off age. She had seen the new magic created, and rose up with companions against it. Those companions became the gods. Othr was one of them. They were far from being purely the will of their worshipers. Otherwise the Romitu gods would have sided with Queen Jesca as she won the hearts and minds of her subjects, rather than her enemy.
He dug deep within himself for reassurance. But the will of his people penetrated deep. But as he sought to find his place in it, he saw it with a different nuance. Any creature with plans has hope. Any soldier who freely follows a leader has aspirations. To fight with such dedication required much passion. These qualities were there as well in their Will, playing in harmony to the main despondent theme.
But the dawn had come. The camp was stirring about him. He hadn’t slept, but he also hadn’t felt the need. Maybe all he needed was his worshipers to sustain him.
He strode down from the rise and was met by Makaira and his Tritons. Winter clasped him somberly. “I’m sorry this didn’t turn out as I had hoped”, he said.
Makaira shook his head. “You are the one who taught me that ‘no insight can see past the first battle’.”
Winter sighed. “Yes. Yes, I did.” He looked around at the marshaling troops. “Look, this isn’t your fight. It has nothing to do with the Northern Seas. Go. Go to the 22nd. They will take care of you.”
“We came to follow you”, said Makaira. “Wherever that leads. We go where you go.”
Winter looked intently at him. Then looked at the others. “I’m not sure you want to go where these people want to go.”
“You were our god first”, said Makaira. “We will not let you go so lightly.”
Winter smiled sadly at that. “There is that.” He looked at each of them again. He found he could see their hearts as clearly as the Forsaken. They were unsettled, worried, scared, and confused. But they were all resolute. They were his. “Very well. Having a reminder that my domain is more than a bunch of creepy undead will help me.” He looked around and said under his breath, “Stick close.”
Winter continued into the camp until he came to Arnhvatr. “What is the will of the commander today?” he asked with resignation.
Arnhvatr nodded at him. “We will assemble. We will await their envoy. Then we will pick champions and fight another challenge.”
Winter looked at him oddly. “Same as you’ve been doing for the last two weeks?”
“Yes”, said Arnhvatr, smiling. “Let us go.”
Winter followed him. Everyone moved to their positions around the arena with practiced familiarity. On queue the 22nd marched forward with their standard. General Porterhouse and his officers approached and they entered the pavilion and began discussing champions.
Winter kept waiting for something to happen. Some grand strategic betrayal. After the events of yesterday, and the addition of him to their army as their god, he expected some great plan to unfold. Some way that all of this lead up to a great advantage they would use and bring slaughter down on their enemy.
But nothing out of the ordinary happened. The mood of the troops, which he now felt in his pulse, was no different than before. There was anticipation there. There was expectation. But it wasn’t tied to what was happening now.
He watched Arnhvatr pick a selection of champions. Then he picked the opposing champion from among General Porterhouse’s selection. They did the same and the arena was prepared for the fighting.
“The fighting of champions”, said Winter to Arnhvatr, while they assembled for the pronouncement of the deeds of the champions. “That’s not important, is it?”
Arnhvatr looked at him with the same smile he wore earlier. “Is that so?”
Winter knew Arnhvatr in a way he didn’t before. It wasn’t that he could read his mind. It was as if he had grown up with him. He was a leader. A warlord. He was up to something. But whatever it was he had been up to for a while. Nothing had changed today because Winter’s arrival hadn’t changed his plan. His plan was something else.
“If the fighting of champions isn’t important, than fighting Romitu isn’t important to you either, is it?” he asked.
Arnhvatr’s smile grew into a grin. “Is that so?” he asked again.
“You’re just doing this to buy time”, said Winter.
“What would I be buying time to spend it on?” said Arnhvatr.
“The new moon”, said Winter. “Every new moon all your wounds heal. Those incorporeal gain new bodies. You are at your strongest.”
Arnhvatr nodded. “And new loyalties. Oaths of service are only binding until the next new moon.”
Winter rubbed his chin. “But by waging a battle of champions you’ve suffered almost no casualties. There’s no point waiting. You aren’t going to be appreciably stronger after the next new moon than you are now.”
“You are right”, said Arnhvatr. “We are as strong now as when the moon was first waxing.”
Winter thought it through. “You aren’t buying time to get stronger. Romitu certainly isn’t getting any weaker.” Then he snapped his fingers. “It isn’t about you. It’s about them. The other Forsaken!”
Arnhvatr’s grin widened even further. “Oh? What about them?”
“Nothing has changed”, said Winter. “Nothing has changed.” He spread his arms. “You’re out of the Black Hole, but nothing has changed. You’re still playing the same game. You’re still fighting the same fight. You and your army against the other Forsaken. You aren’t waiting until the new moon so you are at your strongest. You are waiting until just before the new moon when they are at their weakest.”
“Same game”, said Arnhvatr and winked. “Larger playing field.”
“Are the others still playing the same game?” asked Winter.
“If they are”, said Arnhvatr, “I think they’re playing it pretty badly.”
“You’re going to mop them up once Romitu have worked through their main force”, said Winter. “Then what?”
“Then the new moon comes”, said Arnhvatr. “They can rally to their old commanders who brought them to such disaster, or they can rally to me.”
“You want to unite all of the Forsaken as your own”, said Winter.
“It’s not been done in a thousand years”, said Arnhvatr. “It would be quite an accomplishment.”
“Then what?” asked Winter.
“Perhaps, then, we’ll find a new game.” He looked meaningfully at the troops of Romitu, now cheering the fighting champions.
“Are you all right?” Devonshire had finally managed to get close to Winter after the champions were done. Porterhouse had cornered Arnhvatr and was talking his hear off about the finer points of the fight. It wasn’t clear that Arnhvatr understood their language well enough to follow Porterhouse’s monologs, but it didn’t stop Porterhouse rambling on.
Winter looked around. They were not immediately being watched, but he was pretty sure that Arnhvatr was not distracted enough not to know he was talking to his mother. And, if he knew, and hadn’t intervened, then Winter chose to presume that he wasn’t against him talking to her.
“It’s a difficult question to answer”, said Winter.
Devonshire took his arm and looked him in the eye. “Son”, she said. “Are you all right?”
He met her gaze. “I am still your son”, he said.
“That’s good enough for me”, she replied, releasing his arm. “Is there any way I can help?”
“That’s also a difficult question to answer”, said Winter. “We’re on different sides now.”
“Are you going to do something that puts my loyalties into conflict?” asked Devonshire.
Winter glanced at Arnhvatr then back to her. “I don’t think so”, he said. “Not, at least, in the near term.” A ghost of a smile crossed his face. “But ‘no insight can see past the first battle’.”
“Do you need a mage?” asked Devonshire.
Winter looked at her, startled. “What do you mean?”
Devonshire shrugged. “If you aren’t going to do anything that conflicts with my loyalties, then there shouldn’t be any reason I can’t join you.” She smiled. “Your regiment seems a bit short of magic.”
“Yes, but…” started Winter. “Listen. You won’t be answering to me. I’m not calling the shots here. I’m just their god. I think they just think of me like siege artillery. It’s him you would be answering to.” Winter nodded in Arnhvatr’s direction.
Devonshire gave the Forsaken leader a skeptical look. “Well, that’s not going to happen.” She turned back to him. “The Tritons still fight for you. I can be your high priestess.”
“Mom!” protested Winter. “That’s just… so wrong!”
“Captain of your guard?” she suggested.
“OK”, said Winter, gathering himself together. “I might be able to swing that. Arnhvatr respects you. Or, at least, your… ability to kill gods. He probably won’t immediately kill you as a Romitu spy.” He leaned closer to her. “Will they let you?”
“You’re my son”, said Devonshire, forcefully. “They can’t stop me.” She let the glare fade. “This means they’ll let me.” She waved nonchalantly, “let me have a word with them.”
Winter nodded gravely. She turned to go as the conversation about the fight started to break up. Winter grabbed her arm. “And, mom. Thanks.” He bowed his head. “I’m trying hard to keep my head together. To be your son. But… I’m afraid of being drowned out.”
“I can’t imagine what you are going through”, said Devonshire. “This is more than anyone knows or has had to bear. All I can do is be here for you.”
“Thanks”, he whispered, again.
The following morning a single figure marched across the plan to the Forsaken encampment. Arnhvatr assembled his officers and stood ahead of his army. The figure carried a long pole, but the standard on it was furled. There was no armor, no uniform and no insignia. There were a few murmurs when the figure was close enough to see that it was Devonshire, alone.
She marched straight towards the assembled officers. Arnhvatr took a few steps forward to meet her. However, she took an abrupt right turn, took a few paces, took a left turn, and came to a stop after a few final paces in front of Winter. Arnhvatr looked questioningly at Winter, raising an eyebrow.
“Reporting for duty, sir”, she said, saluting.
Arnhvatr raised his other eyebrow.
“I, uh”, began Winter. “Thought we could use some magical support.”
Arnhvatr nodded slowly. “Yes”, he said. “Undoubtedly we can.”
“So I am, um, taking on… Devonshire… as the Captain of my guard”, he said.
Arnhvatr nodded again. “So be it”, he said.
A trumpet sounded and the vanguard of the 22nd marched onto the field, escorting their choices for champion today.
Devonshire assumed her place behind Winter with a wink.
“Tell me you didn’t desert”, said Winter. “This isn’t worth your career.”
Devonshire snorted. “My military career is a consequence of swearing an oath of service to Scioni. It’s a side effect. I am of House Scioni first and foremost. And there is no question in my mind that if Scioni was alive today, he would have expected me to do what I did.”
Winter smiled lopsided. “I wish I could have met him more than a few times.”
“You have. He lives on in all our actions”, said Devonshire. “Not the least in our Queen. Who gave me personal leave for this.”
Winter looked surprised. “She did? That’s… I guess she was thinking the same thing you were.” Devonshire nodded. “Did she send the banner?”
Devonshire looked up at it, and smiled. “No. I had time to run a few errands first.” She unrolled it. The background was green and picked out across it in golden stars was the form of a trident. It was the northernmost constellation; the symbol of the Northern Seas.
Winter drew in a deep breath. “Cindarina sent it?” he asked.
“Cindarina made it”, said Devonshire. “She’d been working on it for a while. Figured it was time to unfurl it.”
“Yes”, said Winter, eyes misty. “Yes. It should fly at my side. Makaira will bear it.”
Devonshire passed it off. “It would be politic to also fly the Forsaken flag. Do they have one?”
“No”, said Winter. “I’m not really sure they would care.”
“I care”, said Devonshire. “I figure if I hold it opposite of Makaira then they’ll be less likely to assume I’m a spy in their midst.”
Winter sighed deeply. “You and Cindarina are the diplomats. You are right as usual.” He looked at Arnhvatr receiving General Porterhouse. “See the stick figure on his chest? That’s the first letter of his name. Why don’t you use that?”
“OK”, said Devonshire. “Let’s make it white on black, to match their skeletal appearance.” She waved her hands and a pole and long silky banner appeared. They were the same form and shape as the Northern Seas banner, but with a different design. Devonshire considered it, and then cast another spell on both it and the other one. “Just a bit more practicality.” She placed the banner upright on the earth and let go. It stood without assistance. She nodded to Makaira and he did the same.
“Now you’re just showing off”, said Winter.
“Been with the Orcs too long”, said Devonshire, grinning.
In the early afternoon, not long after the last of the defeated 22nd champions were sent on their way, word came to Winter that there was to be an officer’s meeting.
“That’s different”, said Winter. “Maybe Arnhvatr is ready to make his move.”
“He can’t sit here playing forever if he’s going to do something before the new moon”, said Devonshire.
The two of them joined the rest in a small dell that Arnhvatr used as his command post. He nodded to them, and made no comment about Devonshire’s inclusion. The others looked at her uncertainly, but didn’t say anything.
“The new moon approaches”, said Arnhvatr. “We have three armies to eliminate before then. If we’re to intercept each, we need to start tonight. Once we attack the first, word will get to the other two. Starting now gives us time to adjust our approach based on their reaction.” He then proceeded to describe the landscape of the area as reported by the scouts, and plot out the best path that would keep them hidden for the longest.
“Boys, boys, boys”, said Devonshire when he paused. “Your thinking is fifteen centuries out of date.”
The Forsaken officers glared harshly at her. Even Winter looked a little surprised. Arnhvatr showed no expression. “You have some advice to add?”
“Have you learned nothing from fighting Romitu?” Devonshire asked.
“Only that they fight as if one arm and one leg have been chopped off”, said one officer.
“Then why haven’t your fellow armies torn them to shreds?” asked Devonshire.
“Because they use their magic like a crutch to make up for their lack of spine and skill”, said the officer.
“Precisely”, said Devonshire. She leaned forward. “Now imagine an army as beefy and bold as yourselves that also used magic.”
There was complete quiet.
“What did you have in mind?” said Arnhvatr, breaking the silence.
“Sir.” Devonshire smiled and raised finger. “Battle magic. I’ve got spells that will make you faster and stronger, with better vision and hearing.” She raised another finger. “You’ve looted enough Romitu equipment. It’s better than the bones and stones you started with. But you aren’t even touching its intrinsic magic. I can activate that, and slave it to you. The armor will actively deflect blows; the swords can burn, freeze, and fight on even after you drop.” She raised a third finger. “Gates. The reason Romitu conquered the world is gates. You don’t need to spend days marching across the wilderness. We gate to the first army, cut it to ribbons, and then gate to the second one before the fastest scout can inform them. No approach to hide. You get the element of surprise against all three armies.”
The officers looked skeptical and hesitant.
“You know how to do all of this?” asked Arnhvatr.
“Know how?” said Devonshire. “I designed most of those spells. I am, or was, head of the college of magic!”
Thin grins began spreading around the circle. Except for Winter.
“Mana”, he said. “Even tactical gates take a chunk of mana. More than your personal reservoir. Where are you going to get the mana? Are you still connected to the strategic mana reserve?”
“I couldn’t do that”, said Devonshire. “That would be going a bit far. The reserve is all but empty these days anyway. We get the mana from the same place Romitu gets most of it from these days. From a god.”
“Which…” started Winter, then he stopped. “From me? But I don’t know…”
Devonshire reached out, and pulled a glowing ethereal strand of opalescence from Winter. She snapped her fingers and all the loose rocks around the circle flew high into the air. “You’re positively bursting with it”, she said.
Winter looked at his hands, shocked. “It must be the oaths. You guys really believe in me?”
“It’s an interesting topic”, said Devonshire. “You Forsaken are very focused. I wonder if a preternaturally strong Will drives stronger mana creation. I’d love to look into it sometime.”
“Time”, said Arnhvatr. “How much time does it take to set up and transit one of these… gates?”
“How long does it take to train your troops to march in a straight line?” said Devonshire. “We have some complicated drills we use in Romitu. But we train for all sorts of deployments. I think for this sort of operation we should just keep it simple. Give me fifteen minutes to set up and anchor the gate. It’ll be wide enough for three to march abreast. The faster you get through the better. Both for tactical reasons, and mana depletion reasons.”
“And these other magics? Is there preparation time? Can you enhance the whole army?”
Devonshire shrugged. “The weapons I can start doing now. The gate will buy us the time we would have spent marching. The battle magic has to be done on site. I probably can’t do the whole army. But I can do it unit by unit. Either the weakest first, to even things out, or the strongest first, to create a vanguard. It’s up to you.”
Arnhvatr stroked his chin. “Your advice is risky, because it is untried. But because it is untried, it is unexpected.” He turned to his other officers. “We have been fighting one another for centuries. We know each other’s styles. We adapt and adjust to that. But we’ve lacked new enemies for so long that our biggest failing is being predictable. I do not fully trust this approach because I cannot fully evaluate it. But I know that our enemies will not be able to evaluate it at all. And that, above all else, recommends it to me.” He turned back to Devonshire. “I think I would like to see some demonstrations. “
After three days of drilling, Arnhvatr was satisfied that his troops could navigate a gate in a combat situation. Devonshire was extremely busy realigning swords and armor, demonstrating spells, and answering endless questions about the tactical uses of certain magic. Winter mostly brooded.
He attended the daily challenges, but didn’t pay much attention. Afterwards he walked among the troops. Now that word had spread amongst them that he had brought them great magics, they looked up as he passed. Their mood before had been one of doom. They clearly thought Arnhvatr was a brilliant leader, and what they were planning was a master stroke. But although they thought it would be a grand achievement, they didn’t really think it would change anything. They would ride the wave past the new moon and see where it leads. But, as always with the Forsaken, when one leader got ahead of the rest, all of the rest ganged up on them and took them down.
Now, though, there was a feeling of quiet anticipation radiating from them. Almost excitement. They had seen somewhat of what Romitu could do with magic. And now they felt it awakening in their hands. The game had changed. And they had Winter to thank for it. He was living up to his role as their god.
And Winter now had a name for what he had been feeling all along. Mana. When they looked at him in that way. When he felt the yearning in their souls. When the tide of their desire washed over him, he now knew what it was. The elementary magic his mother had taught him was that there was a complex interaction between the Will and the Soul that brought about mana. Mages could learn to store their own mana and use it in spells. Worshipers directed their mana to their god through their devotion. And gods use it to do their own miracles. Winter was a god now, and he was receiving their mana. Only he didn’t know how to use it.
“Any questions?” asked Conscience, who appeared to be able to read his mind.
“Shut up bird”, snapped Winter. “I have enough problems.”
“But I’m here to help you solve them”, said Conscience, soothingly.
“Knowledge doesn’t solve problems. Wisdom does”, said Winter.
“Having the wisdom to ask for knowledge is what solves problems”, said Conscience.
“Bringing Othr back will not solve my problems”, said Winter.
“But he is very wise”, said Conscience. “With considerable experience. A battle royale like this? That’s everything he knows.”
“I’m not saying he couldn’t fight this battle better than me”, said Winter. “But he would fight it his way, not my way.”
“Does it matter as long as you win?” asked Conscience.
“Yes”, said Winter. “I didn’t win my challenge, but they made me a god.”
The magpie was silent to that.
That night they moved out.
The troops assembled quietly in staggered lines. Devonshire had picked a patch of relatively flat land as the basis for the gate, and done a simple framework for the tri-form arch.
“Even having something simple like this helps focus the magic”, she explained to Winter. “The spell itself will warp it into the ideal form as long as it’s close.” She paced around and moved Winter into position. “This is the best place to stand. Once I get the anchor set, I’ll have to teleport to the other end and set it up. You just need to maintain this end.” She held his chin and looked into his eyes. “You can do this. It’s not hard. You just need to be calm and let the mana flow.”
Winter grinned lopsidedly, “easy for you. You’ve been doing this since before I was born.”
“Yes, but you’re a natural”, said Devonshire, her eyes glinting. “Just be sure to be the last one through. Stand tall, be inspiring!”
“I’m not entirely sure how to inspire a ravening horde of undead”, said Winter, looking out over the ranks for Forsaken.
“You’re doing fine so far”, said Devonshire. Then she lowered her voice. “I’ve seen Romitu battle magic at work. They are going to fall on this army and rip it to shreds like a puppy with a shoe. And they’ll credit you with their win. Then we’ll do it again, and a third time. After that, they’ll be yours for life.”
“Or unlife”, said Winter.
Devonshire rolled her eyes. She turned and snapped a salute at Arnhvatr. He acknowledged her salute and gave her the go-ahead. “It’s show time!”
She placed her hands on the makeshift arch and transferred power to it. It lit up in a blue-white glow. Around the triple gate additional gates formed, three to each shaft, and then three more to each additional one. The pattern continued until the eyes blurred.
Winter held up his hands and closed his eyes. He could still see the gate as an afterimage. He fixed on that and kept it in his mind. It drew him towards itself, almost as if he was falling. But he wasn’t moving at all. He figured that was the mana drain.
When he opened his eyes again his Mother had gone. Shortly thereafter the character of the gate changed. The center had become a place of dark vertigo. He blinked his eyes and he could now see through the gate onto another arid plane. Similar, but not identical, to the one that should have been there.
Arnhvatr shouted an order. Three scouts raced through the gate. After a few moments, they raced back and gave a triumphant salute. Arnhvatr shouted another order and the troops began to march.
Line upon line marched through. When one file was done, the next started up. An officer was at the head of each. The sequencing had been discussed at length. No one quite trusted the gates, or Devonshire, or Winter, or they were just normally paranoid. So they tried to balance things so that it if cut off unexpectedly, at no point would the force remaining on either end be in jeopardy.
But it didn’t matter. The gate held. Slowly the field emptied out. The troops were disciplined. They had chosen to go single file, instead of three abreast, just in case there were problems. But it wasn’t necessary. Their execution was flawless. Winter stood alone on the field.
He had a moment’s hesitation. It was just him now. He could bail on it all. Run off and abandon this whole crazy adventure. But the last through the gate had been in Tritons. Makira at the fore carrying Cindarina’s banner. There was no way he could abandon that. With a shout he leapt through and let it close behind him.
When Winter got there, the battle was in full swing. Arnhvatr had instructed Devonshire to open the gate in the midst of the enemy. He felt surprise was enough to form a secure beachhead and not clog the gate. He was right. Each unit had instructions as to which quadrant of the compass to go to, and around him all were engaged.
The only battle Winter had been in was the God War in Romitu. But there really hadn’t been much action for normal troops. The Ævatar had done much of the fighting. But the battle knowledge he had inherited from Othr kicked in and sorted the tangled lines of bodies hacking bodies into interpretable sense.
Nowhere along the perimeter were they seriously threatened. Their troops had cut through the random scattering of Forsaken that were there, yet had the discipline not to overextend themselves. Looking further afield, the opposing army was already reacting. They had called a strategic withdrawal and were regrouping off to one side. But, there, a phalanx of their troops, magically enhanced based on the speed they were going, was off worrying and harrying the units as they struggled for cohesion.
It was no contest. Winter knew, with certainty that they were going to win the day. They would outnumber the regrouped army by about four to one. The two bodies would clash, and the enemy would either rout, or die where they stood. Probably the latter, given the determination of the Forsaken.
He looked to his guard. They didn’t have his insight and were looking nervously at what looked like complete unstructured chaos. “Our job is to make a spectacle of ourselves”, said Winter, for their benefit. “Let’s take that hill over there and put on a show.”
The moved out towards the high ground Winter had spotted. Resistance was light, and the Tritons handled it easily. That boosted their self-confidence. When they took the hill, Makaira proudly unfurled the banner of the Northern Seas and planted it next to Winter. Nacre held the Forsaken banner and erected it at his other side.
Suddenly light shone down from above illuminating Winter and the banners. Winter started, and looked up. Down flew Devonshire, grinning.
“I thought you could use some highlighting”, she said. “Don’t spoil it by looking surprised. There you go, stand straight.”
Winter assumed a heroic position, hands on hips. The banners fluttered dramatically in a breeze that suddenly started up. “Is this majestic enough?”
“Perfect”, said Devonshire. “Everyone can see you. That’s exactly what we want.”
“Glad I can help”, said Winter. A few of the Tritons laughed.
“More than you realize”, said Devonshire. She waved her hands in front of his eyes. “There you go. Some enhanced vision so you can see what’s going on. Hold firm. I’ve got some corpses to limber up.” And off she flew.
Winter felt a bit foolish. But looking around he could see that he was, indeed, noticed. The hill became a rallying point both for Arnhvatr’s troops who had been separated from their units, and also straggling enemies, abandoned and having no hope but to make a lucky attack on what seemed an important unit.
The Tritons had their work cut out for them, as even a single Forsaken was a match for several of them. But they managed it without Winter having to intervene. He was pretty proud of them for that.
But eventually, as Winter had foreseen, the battle wound down. There were no grand single combats on this field. Arnhvatr and his vanguard unceremoniously hacked down those that survived to make a last stand.
“It’s over”, said Devonshire, reappearing at his side.
“What do we do now?” asked Winter.
“We do it again. And then again.”
Thirty-six hours later it was over.
It was a slaughter. The combination of surprise plus magical reinforcement was more than the other Forsaken were prepared for. Even the last fight, where they had some minimal warning, was a foregone conclusion. Whatever they lost from a lack of surprise was more than made up for by the familiarity Arnhvatr’s troops gained with gate transitioning and magic in the first two fights.
The field was littered with broken Forsaken bodies and insubstantial wraiths howling insults at them as they fled back to the Black Hole. Winter walked through it all, a bit numbly. His Tritons stared about unfocused, both from the horrors they had seen and the several freshening spells Devonshire had cast on them to keep them awake during the extended fighting.
But the Forsaken they passed raised their fists in salute to him. Even though he had done little other than stand, dramatically, above each battlefield. He felt their focus on him and their gratitude. Yet, somehow, there was still something hanging in the air. They had a sense of accomplishment, but not finality.
“What a pity Ainia wasn’t here”, said Devonshire. “She always liked a fight where the odds were stacked heavily in her favor.”
“It isn’t over yet”, said Winter.
“Eh?” said Devonshire, caught by surprise. She looked around the field. “There’s no one left to fight. Is there some other breakout we didn’t know about?”
“I’m not sure”, said Winter. “The new moon is close. I’m sure that has something to do with it.”
“Well”, said Devonshire. “There’s the big A. Let’s go ask him.”
They crossed the field to where Arnhvatr and his officers were inspecting the troops. Devonshire snapped him a salute when he acknowledged her presence.
“I hope you are satisfied that I kept my side of the challenge as your god”, said Winter.
“Yes”, said Arnhvatr. “It is the first time in a very long time I’ve had anything good to say about a god.”
Winter nodded his head in acknowledgement.
“We certainly busted some heads together”, said Devonshire. “They’re all ghosts now. Pretty pissed off ones. Are they set to come back like that after the new moon? Do we have to do this all over again or do you have a plan for that?”
Arnhvatr looked disapprovingly at Devonshire. But he answered anyway. “The next battle will be the hardest yet. The more so because it will be fought with words for the minds and souls of those we have defeated.” He waved his hands over the troops. “We move out in a few hours and follow the ghosts back to the Black Hole. We should get there before the return.”
“You said that lines of command are changed every new moon”, said Winter. “Is it traditional to fight for the person who defeated you?”
“If your leader lead you to victory in the previous month, it is typical to follow him”, said Arnhvatr. “If someone you respect defeated you, it is typical to offer to fight for them. Since we defeated everyone, I will make the case that they should all unite under me.”
“Has that ever happened before amongst The Forsaken?” asked Winter.
“No”, said Arnhvatr. “I am the first.”
“Yet you said it will be a hard battle”, said Devonshire. “Seems pretty cut and dried to me.”
Arnhvatr smiled thinly. “We are The Forsaken because the gods have forsaken us. It is commonly held that we, too, have forsaken the gods. Yet my victories were aided by a god.” He nodded at Winter. “There will be those who are contemptuous of that.” His look turned shrewd. “I think the point can be made that when a god truly represents the wishes of his peoples, then it is ill advised to forsake the power that represents. We have clearly demonstrated that power, but we may have to bash some more heads together to emphasize the point.”
“There is unease amongst our people” said Winter.
Arnhvatr nodded. “We’ll calm their fears soon enough. Once we’re on the march their training will kick in and everything will be better.”
“No gate then”, said Devonshire.
“No gate”, said Arnhvatr. “This march is more than just getting from one place to another. It is a reminder of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we can go.”
After a few hours of accelerated sleep, they set off. Arnhvatr moved amongst the troops. Talking to them, reminiscing with them, and cajoling them, in his own way.
Winter moved too. Not so much to talk, but to feel. It was like he knew each of their names, but not as specific. The sense of uncertainty amongst them was strong. And, despite Arnhvatr’s assertion, it only grew as they marched further. It was their prison they were marching on.
Some of them feared a trap. That some unknown Romitu magic would leap up and seal them in again. But, oddly enough, when they looked to Winter, who had brought a Romitu agent into their midst, they felt reassured. As if he, pathetically weak god that he was, would be proof against a millennia old curse wrought by the strongest gods who had ever lived.
Others, pragmatically, just felt it was another fight. Possibly a complicated one, with four sides. Their thoughts were of the comrades they had fought with and against over the centuries and what they would do when presented with this unique situation.
And there was a solid core that had fought with Arnhvatr for decades, and saw this as a pinnacle of everything they had worked towards. High stakes, for sure. But they were excited at the thought of bringing it all to a conclusion.
And, as the Black Hole loomed before them, that is where everyone’s thoughts converged. What would be the conclusion? Would this be the end of it? Despite their undying and horrific nature, Winter felt them as very human just now. There was terror, desperation, anxiety, anticipation, excitement; the whole spectrum of emotions. He caught sidelong looks from his mother and realized he was getting misty-eyed and caught up in the waves of emotion.
As they crossed the border and the skies grew dark the ghosts started to appear. These, Winter did not feel as strongly. But some of the burning animosity they had came through. More, Winter felt his people react to them. They closed ranks reflexively and turned more towards one another. The universal hatred expressed made them bond together.
Not far in they reached the position Arnhvatr had been aiming for. It was a mesa with high walls around most sides. Devonshire offered to adjust the fortifications with landscape magic. But Arnhvatr refused. They all knew every nook and cranny of this spot of land. Perturbing that would not be to their advantage.
The sun set in a bloody pool. It felt to Winter like it was going down for good. That he would never see it again. As the last beams of light receded the ghosts started becoming solid. They advanced on the mesa. Hatred burned in their eyes and they clutched rocks and whatever other weapons they could find menacingly.
Arnhvatr stood on a promontory at the edge of the mesa. He officers stood by him. Winter, flanked by his banners stood to one side. The ground at the base of the cliff started to become thick with Forsaken.
Arnhvatr addressed them. Winter caught most of it. At least the bits that used words from the Norslander language. But much of it was in the mishmash of pidgin spoken by most of the Forsaken.
He made his points. He claimed his rights. He derided their commanders. He proclaimed his vision.
Winter watched closely. Everyone did. The hatred didn’t go away, but he could see a grudging acknowledgement in the way some stood for which his points rung true. But, by body language and venomous looks in his direction, it was clear that there were cadres that were not listening to anything. And, in the nucleus of those knots of discontentment, were what Winter didn’t have to be told were the leaders of the other three armies.
They began shouting their own answers back. They were not, so much, playing to the audience, but launching a personal attack on Arnhvatr. He, however, did not dignify them by answering them directly, but by continuing to address the rank and file.
And then it happened.
Winter’s focus suddenly was grabbed and zeroed in on Arnhvatr. He didn’t know what signal was given, but warning bells rang out in his mind as he saw one of his officers, directly behind him, swiftly draw blade. A plant! It should have been obvious, amongst people who have been fighting each other forever, that there would be intrigue. But it has seemed so unthinkable until it happened. Like recruiting a god.
Everything moved in slow motion. The blade was clear and rising just as others were starting to notice. Winter already had Gungande in his hands. The blade reached its apex, and started the downward stroke towards Arnhvatr’s back. But Gungande was already hurled. It shot through the air with a crack of thunder and obliterated the treacherous officer. The blade went wide and sailed, end over end, into the space in front of the mesa.
But the damage was done. Arnhvatr’s appearance of invulnerability was broken. The mood swept through the assembled Forsaken. He may have done well militarily, but if he couldn’t spot a traitor in his ranks, it was all just fancy magic, not real leadership.
Winter watched, his mind working in overdrive. He saw hearts waver, confidences shaken, enemies grow elated, and hope slip away from the base of the mesa like a receding wave.
It can’t be too late! Just as a battle can be turned around at almost any point with the right tactics, this could be regained. He could do it. He was not just a battle god, but a great orator. It was time to step in, to play his hand. But the time slowed seconds ticked on as his mind raced to put the right words, the right gestures together. He was on the cusp. He knew it could be done, but it was coming to him too slowly.
“Othr could do it”, came Conscience’s calm voice in his head.
Winter knew this to be true. His own intuition came directly from Othr. He would be able to think faster, apply the right gravitas, motivate or intimate them. That’s what he did.
“Just think of the lives saved”, urged Conscience.
These poor pitiful creatures. Doomed for over a thousand years because of god squabbles. Othr had done his best, and Othr would do his best for them given the chance. And, given the complete lack of other serious gods, he could. This damn cycle of eternal fighting would be done.
But, no. Othr was a battle god. He might stop them from one another, but he would seek other battles. Romitu. The other gods. As Arnhvatr sought to be sole leader over all the Forsaken, so Othr would seek to be sole ruler over all of creation. Winter knew this in is soul.
“No”, cried Winter. “It has to stop.”
“But…” started Conscience.
“STOP” commanded Winter. A ball of blue crystal engulfed Conscience and he fell to the ground. Winter stared at him, wide eyes. He had done that. He had willed it, and it was done. It was god magic! It wasn’t something learned. It wasn’t something he had to give another piece of himself to Othr to master. It was just will.
“STOP” commanded Winter, louder. “STOP” he shouted, and rocks was shaken loose from the sides of the mesa. “STOP” he screamed from the promontory Arnhvatr had been standing on, growing to twice his normal height and with Gungande held over his head. “THIS HAS TO STOP” he boomed.
The waste grew quiet. Everyone was riveted by his manifestation.
“You have been unjustly cursed for over a thousand years”, said Winter. His voice cleaved the air. He did not know how he spoke, but he knew all could understand him. “Now you are free. The only curse that remains is the curse you place on yourselves.”
He looked to each of them. And looking back to him, he could see into each of their souls. He knew them as he had known his own.
“You do not have to repeat the pattern anymore”, he said. More gently, but no quieter. He felt stirrings amongst them. Desire, disbelief, and hope.
“Those who want their life back, come with me. Help me raise my lands back above the sea. Plow the fields, rear the horses, and just be normal.”
He turned to another quadrant. “Those who have had enough, and just want the peace of forgetfulness, come to me. I have a brave and noble people.” He gestured with his arms to the Tritons. The banner they carried made by the woman who loved him. “Because of the indifference of their creator they are bereft of Souls. Give yours to me and, like new born children, I will rest it within them as Othr’s soul resides in me. You will give them mastery over their destiny and you will have peace.”
Winter gestured to the other banner. “Those who have lived for fighting. Who have devoted their entire existence to fighting. Who have striven for perfection in their fighting and who truly want to fight for eternity, enlist with me.” A light shone down on Devonshire, surprised, blinking and wearing her official Romitu armor. “Romitu has fought the demons. Romitu has fought the gods. They have their sights on even bigger enemies. I will sponsor you as an Army of Romitu and you will have fighting like you never imagined.”
“You all have the potential to achieve what you want. I ask for nothing in return. I place no obligation on you. This is not about me. It is about you. Let me help you.”
There was silence for a moment longer. And then Winter felt it. They turned to him. First in ones and twos, their hearts opened up to him and they released themselves to him. Then more cascaded, and then in a tidal wave. Winter closed his eyes and let it all wash over him. Like floating in heavy surf. Their emotions pummeled him, but did not hurt them. He saw them as individuals, he counseled them, held them, wept with them, and encouraged them. Even the most bitterest, the most crazed, and the most vengeful sought him in the end. Because as he felt them, in that moment, they all felt each other. They gave comfort to one another in the ordeal they had all shared. They forgave one another and presented themselves, ready to move on.
The sun shone brightly over the green fields. Clouds dappled the sky giving just enough light and shade to create a pleasant temperature. Waves lapped the nearby shore quietly and gently, a sonorous background to pleasant conversation. The air had just enough of a breeze in it to keep everything fresh. It was the perfect day for a wedding.
And that was no coincidence.
Winter stood, formally attired, just outside the main gathering area. He bounced lightly on his feet. Part in nervousness, part to remind himself he wasn’t swimming, and partly in the novelty of the green springy stuff underfoot. It wasn’t quite grass, but it wasn’t quite lichen either. It had been a gift from his mother, and the Scioni Institute of Magic. It had first been developed as part of research to green the outer waste, in preparation for the restoration of the souls of the divine realm to the mortal realm. Here it had been used to cover the bare rock of the islands that had been raised.
His islands. His kingdom. Not one he borrowed. Not one he was the caretaker of. His own.
And the land itself had been a gift. The surviving gods of the Romitu, Sindhu and Kemet had decided to make good faith reparations for the actions of the first gods. Generous donations of mana and divine magic did the work of raising Norsland from the waters.
Balanoptera fidgeted nearby. All animosity had vanished between him and Winter. They had both grown up a bit and discovered what they held in common was greater than what they held in opposition.
The last few months had been fraught with difficult, delicate, diplomatic decisions. How would Winter rule both Norsland and the Northern Seas? Was it fair for them to be one kingdom? But he was only the caretaker of the Northern Seas. When the rightful ruler claimed the throne, what of Norsland?
But Balanoptera had made things much easier. For his actions as Winter’s champion, General Porterhouse had offered him a commission as an officer in the 22nd army. This proved far more appealing to Balanoptera than ruling. He gladly waved any right he had to the realm.
But much easier was still not easy. Balanoptera’s abdication did not make Winter’s rule permanent, as his fostership was due to end soon. Atlantica made it clear that it would be unfair for him to resume the throne, even just in name. His duties were now much wider and he could not give the attention to the people of the Northern Seas what they deserved. He suggested that the people of the Northern Seas choose a new ruler themselves.
With Atlantica’s blessing, this solution was embraced by all. There was much discussion in court. A number of conversations were had, both public and private, but it was pretty clear in the end that there was really only one candidate acceptable to all the people of the Northern Seas.
And here, now, she arrived: Cindarina, Surge of the Northern Seas. With a fanfare of waves she and her Triton guards approached the gathering from the surf line. Behind her came the guests from the Underwater, fashioned with magics so they could mingle with those of the surface. But, for the most part, they stayed on the part of the beach kept wet by the rolling waves.
Balanoptera smiled at Winter; an honest genuine smile. Not something Winter saw that often. He settled his dress uniform; studded with the medals the Orcs were so fond of giving and receiving. He strode before Winter, his champion once again for the day.
With him went the banner bearers. First the one for the Northern Seas. Winter had kept the white A rune on the black background. To his surprise Arnhvatr had chosen to be reincarnated. In the end, it was eternal peace he desired above all else. Winter had specifically emplaced his soul within Cindarina. Both for honor, and so he could keep an eye on the lands his actions had made possible.
Following that banner was the red and gold banner of Romitu. The very first thing Winter and Cindarina had decided was to beseech Romitu to accept them as territories of the Romitu empire. Queen Jesca was quite amused, these being the first territories ever, for either the first or second empire, to join without being conquered. She quite happily accepted.
Finally came the standard of the 2nd army. It had been disbanded hundreds of years ago, but its icon had remained in the Romitu treasury since then. When Winter accepted the service of the Forsaken who wished to fight, he offered them as troops to Queen Jesca. She reconstituted the 2nd army and made it their own. Only a token number of them turned up for these celebrations, though. They picked their fate because they were focused on one thing. And this wasn’t it.
Once the banners were in place, the trumpets blared a fanfare. Winter, himself, strode out. He looked over the faces turned towards him. Monarchs, Generals, Mages, and even several Gods were all here. He had a strong suspicion that never, in the history of this world, had there been such a gathering. He looked up, at the wheeling seabirds overhead, and wondered if one of them was actually a swan. And, if so, whether the Grey Elf, one of the creators of the world, considered it a uniquely different enough event to save their world.
Winter is the child of Devonshire, the High Mage of the Scioni Institute of Magic. His birth father was Othr, the last god of a destroyed people, killed by his mother shortly after his conception. After birth, his Mother also killed the daughter of the sea god Atlantica and was forced to give up Winter to fostership with him in recompense. Now on the cusp of adulthood, Winter finds his loyalties pulled between those of his mother’s people, and his foster people. If that wasn’t hard enough, he’s also plagued by mysterious dreams he can only conclude come from the long dead people of his father.